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Tertiary enrolment is expanding rapidly, with very strong returns for individuals and taxpayers, but new evidence shows that universities can fail to offer, and individuals fail to pursue, the fields of study that promise the greatest labour-market opportunities, according to a new OECD report.

Education at a Glance 2017 includes for the first time in-depth analysis of the subjects students take at vocational and tertiary level. It finds that business, administration and law are the most popular careers in countries surveyed, chosen by around one in four students. This compares to 16% in engineering, construction and manufacturing, and less than 5% of students study information and communication technologies, despite graduates in these subjects having the highest employment rate on average across OECD countries, exceeding 90% in about a third of them.

Adults with a tertiary degree benefit from substantial returns on their investment: they are 10 percentage points more likely to be employed, and will earn 56% more on average than adults who only completed upper secondary education. They are also less likely to suffer from depression than their less-educated peers. Those with below upper secondary education earn on average 22% less than those who have completed it.

“Tertiary education promises huge rewards for individuals, but education systems need to do a better job of explaining to young people what studies offer the greatest opportunities for life,” said OECD Secretary-General Angel Gurría. “Equitable and high quality education fuels personal fulfilment as well as economic growth. Countries must step up their efforts to ensure that education meets the needs of today’s children and informs their aspirations for the future.”

While the life chances of the better educated are rising, those who are left behind pay an increasing price, in terms of worsening employment and low wages. 43% of 25-34 year-olds in the OECD had a tertiary degree in 2016, up from 26% in 2000. The share of 25-34 year-olds without upper secondary education has also fallen, from 25% in 2000 to 16% in 2016.

But although more adults are reaching upper secondary level, completion remains problematic. Among countries with available data, approximately one in four students who enrolled had not graduated after two years from the theoretical end date of the programme and four out of five of these students have dropped out of education altogether. This is a critical loss as the unemployment rate for 25-34 year-olds who failed to complete upper secondary education is close to 17% in the OECD, compared to 9% for those who did.

his year’s edition of Education at a Glance also assesses where OECD and partner countries stand on their way to meeting the Sustainable Development Goal for education by 2030. For some targets, the disparities across OECD countries are substantial. On average over the past 12 months, OECD and partner countries have achieved gender parity in the participation rate of adults in formal and non-formal education programmes and training.

However, this result masks one of the largest variations among all gender parity indicators, with the ratio of women to men participating in such programmes in the past 12 months ranging between 0.7 and 1.4 across countries. Similarly, the share of men and women achieving minimum proficiency in literacy and numeracy varies widely, reflecting inequalities in basic skills across OECD countries. 

Educational attainment and outcomes.  The importance of vocational programmes varies greatly among countries. The share of younger adults with upper secondary education with a vocational component varies from less than 5% in Costa Rica,­ Israel and Mexico to more than 40% in Austria, Germany, the­ Slovak Republic and Slovenia. (A1)

Based on current patterns, it is estimated that on average across OECD countries, 80% of today’s young people will graduate from upper secondary education before the age of 25 and 49% are expected to graduate from tertiary education at least once in their lifetime. (A2/3)

Education spending.  Expenditure has been increasing at a higher rate than student enrolments at all levels, particularly tertiary since 2010. OECD countries spend on average USD 10, 759 per year per student on educational institutions from primary to tertiary education: USD 8 733 per primary student, USD­10, 235 per lower secondary student, USD 10, 182 per upper secondary student and USD 16, ­143 per tertiary student. (B1)

Expenditure on primary to tertiary educational institutions relative to GDP reached 6% or more in Canada, Denmark, Iceland, Korea, New Zealand, Norway, the United Kingdom and the United States. At the other end of the spectrum were the Czech Republic, Hungary, Indonesia, Luxembourg, the Russian Federation and the Slovak Republic, who spent less than 4% of GDP on education. (B3)

Across OECD countries, total public spending on primary to tertiary education averages 11.3% of total government expenditure, ranging in OECD and partner countries from less than 8% in the Czech Republic, Hungary, Italy and the Russian Federation to at least 16% in Brazil, Costa Rica, Indonesia, Mexico, New Zealand and South Africa. (B4)

Access to education.  Across the OECD, at least 90% of students are enrolled in education for an average duration of 14­ years, although this ranges from 10 years in Mexico and Turkey to 17 years in Norway. (C1)

In most OECD countries, education now begins for most children well before they are five years old – 78% of three-year-olds are enrolled in early childhood education across the OECD. (C2)

Men are falling behind in the share of entrants into tertiary education in almost all OECD countries, and this trend is likely to carry on in the future. The first-time entry rate to tertiary education for women under 25 is 11 percentage points higher on average than for men. (C3)

In the classroom.  Students in OECD countries receive an average of 7 538 hours of compulsory instruction over the course of their primary and lower secondary education, ranging from 5 976 hours in Latvia to almost double that in Australia (11 000 hours) and Denmark (10 960 hours). (D1)

The teaching workforce is ageing: on average across OECD countries, 33% of primary to secondary teachers were at least 50­ years old in 2015, up 3 percentage points from 2005. The profession is also still largely dominated by women, who make up seven out of ten teachers on average across OECD­ countries.

Teachers’ salaries are low compared to other similarly educated full-time workers, ranging from between 78% and 94% of the salaries of full-time workers with tertiary education.