Education at a Glance 2011: Highlights
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branch 1. Education levels and student numbers
  branch What do students study?
  • Women represent the majority of students and graduates in almost all OECD countries and largely dominate in the fields of education, health and welfare, and humanities and arts. Men dominate in engineering, manufacturing and construction.
  • In almost all countries, the largest proportion of tertiary students graduated in the fields of social sciences, business and law.
  • In the vast majority of countries, more than two-thirds of graduates in the field of education and the field of health and welfare in 2009 were women. However, in 26 of the 33 countries, women represented fewer than 30% of graduates in the fields of engineering, manufacturing and construction.


This spread examines the different fields of study pursued by students. Faced with an economic downturn and shrinking budgets, governments need to invest in the fields of study that develop the competencies needed to respond to labour-market demands. Students' preferences and abilities, and the cost, duration and location of higher education can all influence the choice of a field of study, as can changes in the labour market. In turn, the relative popularity of various fields of education affects the demand for programmes and teaching staff, as well as the supply of new graduates.


At the level of upper secondary vocational education, there are clear differences in what girls and boys are studying. Boys and girls might choose different fields of study because of differences in their personal preferences, different academic abilities, the influence of traditional perceptions of gender roles and/or any early education policies that may lead to gender sorting.

On average, more than one boy in two graduated from an upper secondary vocational education in the fields of engineering, manufacturing and construction. For girls, the main field of study varied among countries. In Austria, the Czech Republic, France, Germany, Indonesia, Japan, Luxembourg, New Zealand, the Slovak Republic, Slovenia and Switzerland, girls tended to prefer social sciences, business and law. In Australia, Denmark, Finland, the Netherlands and Norway, health and welfare programmes were more popular. Girls in Estonia, Hungary and Poland were more attracted to the service professions, while girls in Iceland, Korea, Spain and Sweden tended to pursue studies in education, humanities and arts.

At the tertiary level, the distribution of new entrants and graduates by field of study is driven by the relative popularity of these fields among students, the relative number of students admitted to these fields by educational institutions as well as the degree structure of the various disciplines in a particular country.

In almost all countries, social sciences, business and law programmes together receive the largest proportion of students at the tertiary level. In 2009, these fields attracted the highest share of new entrants in all countries except Finland and Korea.

Science-related fields, which include science and engineering, are less popular and represent less than a quarter of all entering tertiary students. This low level of participation is mainly due to the under-representation of women in science-related fields, which range from 5% in Japan and the Netherlands to 20% in Israel, while the proportion of men in these fields ranges from 26% in the Netherlands to 57% in Finland.

Women were predominant among university graduates in the field of education, representing more than 70% of tertiary students in this field across all countries, apart from Japan (59%) and Turkey (55%). They also formed the majority in health-related studies, averaging 75% of all degrees awarded in this field. In contrast, in all countries except Denmark, Estonia, Iceland, Poland, the Slovak Republic, Slovenia and Spain, fewer than 30% of university graduates in the fields of engineering, manufacturing and construction were women (see Table A4.3a in Education at a Glance 2011).


Data refer to the academic year 2008/09 and are based on the UOE data collection on education statistics administered by the OECD in 2010. The fields of education used in the UOE data collection instruments follow the revised ISCED classification by field of education. The same classification is used for all levels of education. University students also include those in advanced research.

Information on data for Israel: http://dx.doi.org/10.1787/888932315602.

Going further

For additional material, notes and a full explanation of sourcing and methodologies, see Education at a Glance 2011 (Indicator A4).

Areas covered include:

  • Upper secondary vocational education by field of study. Tertiary-level entry rates by field of study.
  • Tertiary-level graduation rates by field of study.
Indicator in PDF Acrobat PDF page

1.13 Distribution of graduates in upper secondary vocational programmes, by field of education, 2009
Distribution of graduates in upper secondary vocational programmes, by field of education, 2009
1.14 Distribution of new entrants into tertiary programmes, by field of education, 2009
Distribution of new entrants into tertiary programmes, by field of education, 2009

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