Tertiary education rates reach record high, with more efforts needed to expand vocational education and training, says OECD

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The share of young adults with advanced qualifications across the OECD, driven by the growing need for advanced skills in labour markets, reached a record 48% of 25-34 year-olds in 2021, compared to just 27% in 2000. Shares of tertiary educated 25-34 year olds are highest in Korea (69.3%) and Canada (66.4%), according to a new OECD report.

Education at a Glance 2022 reports that the increase in tertiary attainment was especially strong among women, who now make up 57% of all tertiary educated 25-34 year olds, compared to 43% for their male peers.

“The dramatic rise in educational attainment is providing a unique opportunity to fuel economic and social progress in our countries,” OECD Secretary-General Mathias Cormann said. “It is essential that countries continue to innovate and improve their education systems to ensure that everyone benefits from the advantages of a good education and acquires the skills they need to succeed.”

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.

Better educated adults may also find it easier to adopt new technologies that improve their quality of life. For example, 71% of 55-74 year-olds with tertiary attainment used online or video calls during the pandemic, allowing them to stay in touch with family and friends and avoid social isolation. Rates were highest in the Netherlands (84%) and Norway (83%). In contrast, only 34% of similarly aged adults with below upper secondary attainment reported making online or video calls.

Despite the benefits of obtaining a tertiary degree, many tertiary students do not complete their programmes of study. Only 39% of bachelor’s students graduate 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.

Spending on tertiary education per student has increased despite the growth in the number of students. Since 2012, the number of tertiary students has increased by 0.4% per year across the OECD, but spending on tertiary educational institutions increased by 1.6% per year in real terms over the same period. This led to an increase in average real spending per student of 1.2% annually.

But not all students are best served by a tertiary degree and more efforts need to be made to expand vocational education and training (VET). 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, according to the report.

Education at a Glance 2022 also includes analysis of the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on education and the resulting accelerated adoption of digital teaching and learning. More than half of the 27 countries with available data plan to continue the enhanced use of digital tools at lower secondary education. Around half of OECD countries reformed their regulatory or institutional frameworks during the pandemic to facilitate access to digital learning.

Most countries also found resources to purchase digital tools for in-classroom and remote learning and to train teachers in their use. However, to fully benefit from digitalisation, countries must strengthen the innovation culture in education, says the report. This will require improving institutional and regulatory frameworks, in particular governing digital education, and public procurement in the education sector to become more responsive to digital opportunities and create stronger incentives for private sector innovation. It will also require giving teachers the skills they need to use digital tools in the classroom and enhance their own professional development.

Education at a Glance provides comparable national statistics measuring the state of education worldwide. The report 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.

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