Expand vocational education and training, demands OECD

Tertiary education rates have reached a record high as labour markets drive the growing need for advanced skills, but much more needs to be done to expand vocational education and training (VET) and tackle low completion rates on degree courses, particularly among male students, according to the 2022 Education at a Glance global survey.

While slightly over half of 18- to 24-year-olds in the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) countries were in education or training when the international policy forum took its snapshot of the state of global education early last year, that still left huge numbers of young people neither employed, nor in formal education or training (NEET).

NEET rates alarmingly high

In some countries NEET rates are alarmingly high even among tertiary graduates: over 30% of tertiary graduates in Greece and South Africa are not in work or education, the report says.

Despite the tough job market in some countries for young people, there is little doubt that “the dramatic rise in educational attainment is providing a unique opportunity to fuel economic and social progress in our countries”, according to OECD Secretary-General Mathias Cormann.

Having a university degree gives young people strong job market advantages. In 2021, the average unemployment rate for individuals across the OECD with tertiary attainment was 4%, compared to 6% for those with upper secondary attainment and 11% with below upper secondary attainment.

Full-time workers with tertiary attainment also earn on average around 50% more than workers with upper secondary attainment and nearly twice as much as workers without upper secondary attainment.

Low completion rates among men

However, despite the benefits of obtaining a tertiary degree, many tertiary students do not complete their programmes of study, with the study finding only 39% of bachelor degree students graduating within the expected timeframe for their programme.

Completion rates are particularly low among men in all OECD countries. On average, men are 11 percentage points less likely to complete their tertiary programme within its theoretical duration than women.

Corinne Heckmann, an analyst in the education and skills directorate of OECD, told University World News: “Low completion rates are costly for individuals and society because students reap only a fraction of the benefits of their studies if they do not complete their degree.”

She said there are “multiple reasons at play” for the gender differences in completion rates, including mandatory military service that disrupts studies of men in some countries and the stronger incentive for women to complete tertiary studies to get a good job.

Among the various ways to improve completion rates, the OECD report mentions financing of institutions being to some extent conditional on completion rates, thus creating incentives for institutions to help students complete their programme, and giving students greater flexibility in “what they learn, how they learn, where they learn and when they learn”.

This could be done by providing credentials for the acquisition of specific skills rather than obliging students to study for three or four years,” said Heckmann.

Make VET a first choice, ‘not a last resort’

And while the report found spending on tertiary education per student increasing faster than the growth in the number of students in most OECD countries, “not all students are best served by a tertiary degree and more efforts need to be made to expand vocational education and training [VET]”, according to the report.

It says: “Making VET a first choice rather than a last resort for students requires new links between upper secondary VET and professional tertiary education to give VET graduates the opportunity to obtain additional qualifications at a later stage.”

OECD analyst Viktoria Kis told University World News their data clearly shows that “young people who benefited from work-based learning while pursuing VET have better employment outcomes” and that “apprenticeships or internships are a powerful way of connecting VET to labour market needs”.

She said: “Some countries have a strong tradition of extensive use of apprenticeships, like Germany and Switzerland. The Norwegian VET system is mostly composed of ‘2+2’ apprenticeships: two years spent at school, followed by two years in workplaces.

“In Sweden work-based learning is now mandatory in all VET programmes and apprenticeships were introduced. France has also strongly increased participation in apprenticeship-type programmes.”

Plea for more work-based learning

However, challenges remain with eight OECD countries (Costa Rica, Czech Republic, Greece, Italy, Japan, South Korea, Lithuania and Mexico) reporting that their students in school-based programmes receive no or little work-based learning.

“Without high-quality work-based learning, providing high-quality VET is much harder,” said Kis.

“Another challenge is that some VET programmes lead to limited higher level learning opportunities: they either do not yield eligibility into tertiary education or if pathways exist to higher levels, they are rarely taken.

“If VET is viewed as a dead-end, then young people who would like to keep their options open or have their minds set on tertiary education, will avoid it. Unfortunately, not all countries have yet established strong pathways from VET to higher levels of education,” Kis told University World News.

Raise the status of VET

“When VET is of poor quality, it can hardly lead to good labour market outcomes and attractive career prospects. This can create a vicious circle, in which VET is viewed as a low-status option, avoided by bright and ambitious young people and their families, and leading to poor labour market outcomes.

Professor Graeme Atherton, director of the National Education Opportunities Network (NEON) and head of the Centre for Inequality and Levelling Up at the University of West London, agreed and told University World News: “We need to work on making VET in itself a valued route and not frame it as an option for those who just feel a degree is not for them. Doing this requires building a clear understanding of what VET routes are and the nature of VET courses even before upper secondary though – as happens with more academic university courses.”

Kis agreed and told University World News: “If the quality of VET is improved, then it will be a more attractive option for young people. Employers, in turn, see VET as a valuable source of skilled labour, and perceive work-based learning as a way of identifying future recruits and training them according to their own needs.”

Develop partnerships with industry

“To achieve this, VET programmes must be developed in partnership with industry and work-based learning extensively used to create strong linkages between schools and employers. It is also essential to build strong pathways from VET into higher levels of education,” Kis said.

She said that included building suitable routes so that workers trained in technical skills can go on to pursue further learning throughout their lives and careers, “and we need to make sure VET prepares them for that.”

The Education at a Glance survey provides comparable national statistics measuring the state of education worldwide and analyses the education systems of the OECD’s 38 member countries, as well as of Argentina, Brazil, China, India, Indonesia, Saudi Arabia and South Africa.

It found that between 2000 and 2021, the share of 25- to 34-year-olds with tertiary education increased by 20 percentage points, from 27% to 48%, and that among 25- to 34-year-olds, the average share of women with tertiary attainment is 53%, 12 percentage points higher than the share for men (41%).

Across the countries survey, tertiary attainment rates among young adults vary from less than 30% in Mexico and Italy to almost 70% in South Korea.

Some countries have made marked progress by “developing shorter programmes to provide participants with professional knowledge, skills and competencies and match the needs of the labour market”, said the report.

For example, in Canada and South Korea, more than one-fifth of young adults hold short-cycle tertiary qualifications, and in Austria, those with a short-cycle tertiary degree make up the largest share of tertiary-educated 25- to 34-year-olds.

Nic Mitchell is a UK-based freelance journalist and PR consultant specialising in European and international higher education. Follow @DelaCour_Comms on Twitter. Nic also blogs at