Indicator B4. Who is expected to enter tertiary education?

If current entry patterns continue, it is estimated that 51% of young adults (excluding international students) will enter tertiary education for the first time before the age of 25 on average across OECD countries. However, first-time entry rates into tertiary education can vary significantly across countries depending on specific contextual elements relating to entry requirements or student flows, the availability of programmes and their prevalence within the educational landscape. For example, Chile and Turkey have some of the highest first-time tertiary entry rates among OECD countries, inflated by a high rate of entry into short-cycle tertiary and bachelor programmes. In contrast, Luxembourg reports the lowest first-time tertiary entry rates among OECD countries, due to the very high share of national tertiary students enrolled abroad (see Indicator B6).

In slightly more than half of OECD and partner countries, first-time entrants into tertiary education can choose from one of three types of programme: short-cycle tertiary, bachelor’s or a master’s long first degree. A short-cycle tertiary programme (ISCED 5) is typically a short two- to three-year programme that develops occupation-specific skills and that most often prepares students for direct entry into the labour market. A bachelor’s or equivalent programme (ISCED 6) allows students to obtain a first degree qualification over three to four years. A master’s long first degree (ISCED 7-LFD) does not require students to first obtain a bachelor’s degree, but when completed, after at least five years, the qualification attained is at the same level as a second-stage master’s degree (ISCED 7) (OECD/Eurostat/UNESCO Institute for Statistics, 2013[2]).

The level at which students first enter tertiary education depends on the upper secondary programme they graduated from, the length of their upper secondary studies and the employment opportunities available to them. In some countries, tertiary education is only open to students graduating from an upper secondary general programme. On average across OECD countries, three out of ten upper secondary vocational students are enrolled in programmes which do not provide direct access into tertiary education (OECD, 2021[3]). The distribution of students across each tertiary entry-level programme depends on each programme’s availability, capacity and entry requirements within the national education system. For example, short-cycle degrees do not exist or represent less than 5% of first-time tertiary entrants in about a third of OECD member countries, despite their benefits in providing advanced occupation-specific skills. Similarly, master’s long first degrees are an important part of the educational offering in only about half of OECD countries.

On average across OECD countries, in 2019, more than three-quarters of first-time tertiary entrants enrolled in a bachelor’s or equivalent programme. However, the predominance of such programmes varies greatly from country to country. In Belgium, Finland, Greece, India and the Netherlands, 95% or more of first-time tertiary students enter bachelor’s programmes. In other countries, first-time tertiary entrants are more evenly distributed across the various entry-level tertiary programmes. For example, in Austria, Canada, Chile, the People’s Republic of China, Colombia, Japan, the Russian Federation, Saudi Arabia, Spain, Turkey and the United States, more than one-third of first-time entrants into tertiary education entered short-cycle programmes, twice the OECD average of 17%. Master’s long first degrees are the least common entry point into tertiary education, representing 6% of first-time tertiary entrants on average across OECD countries, and this exceeds 15% only in Argentina, Austria, Germany, Hungary and Sweden. They include highly specialised fields such as medicine, dentistry or, in some cases, law and engineering (OECD/Eurostat/UNESCO Institute for Statistics, 2015[4]). In most countries, the majority of first-time tertiary entrants at master's level enter through master’s long first degrees. In the United Kingdom, where master’s long first degrees are not available, first-time tertiary entrants at master’s level are students who are entering programmes based on industry experience rather than academic qualifications (Table B4.1).

From an economic point of view, delayed entry into tertiary education can be costly to the public purse if adults postpone their entry into the labour market and hence the time when they are typically able to start contributing financially to society. However, some students may also decide to postpone entry to tertiary education to gain occupational experience in the workplace before deciding what field of study to pursue or to financially support the cost of their programme. On average across OECD countries, students are about 22 when they enter tertiary education for the first time, and around four out of five first-time entrants are under the age of 25. This average age ranges from younger than 20 years old in Belgium and Japan to 24 years old or over in Denmark, Iceland, Israel, Sweden, Switzerland and Turkey (Table B4.1).

In about a third of OECD countries with data, most students tend to enter tertiary education within the first two years after graduating from upper secondary education. However, in countries such as Israel, Sweden and Turkey, the average age of first-time tertiary entrants is at least five years more than the average graduation age of upper secondary students. Delayed entry can indicate difficulties in access to tertiary education, either through selective entry requirements or numerus clausus (a fixed maximum number of entrants admissible to an academic institution). In Finland and Sweden, admissions are restricted for many programmes and fields of study, resulting in more than 60% of applicants being rejected (see Indicator D6 in OECD (2019[5])). Delayed entry may also reflect mandatory conscription requirements. This is the case in Israel, where less than 25% of entrants to bachelor’s programmes enrol straight after upper secondary (see Box B4.1 in OECD (2019[5])). A wide gap between average age among tertiary entrants and upper secondary graduates may also reflect the existence of second-chance and lifelong learning programmes characteristic of flexible pathways allowing for re-entry into the education system. Financial challenges in meeting the private costs associated with higher education may also prompt adults to defer entry into tertiary education and enter the labour market after upper secondary education.

On average and excluding international students, the entry rate to bachelor’s programmes for students under 25 is 45% across OECD countries, the entry rate to master’s programmes for students under 30 is 15% and that to doctoral programmes less than 1%. The age threshold of 25 for entrants to bachelor programmes and 30 for entrants to master’s and doctoral programmes refers to the typical age to enter a tertiary degree observed across OECD countries. However the age distribution of new entrants to each tertiary level of education may differ greatly across countries. On average across OECD countries, 84% of new entrants into bachelor’s or equivalent programmes are below the age of 25. The share varies from more than 96% in Belgium, Japan and Korea to 70% or less in Israel, Sweden and Switzerland. Differences in the share of new entrants under the age of 25 reflect the possibilities of re-entry into the education system among adults and selective entry requirements for bachelor’s programmes.

There is much more variation across countries in the share of new entrants below the typical age at master’s or doctoral level than at bachelor’s level. While 74% of new entrants at master’s level are under 30, this ranges between less than 50% in Chile, Colombia and Israel to 90% or more in Belgium, the Czech Republic, Germany, Italy, Japan and the Netherlands. Similarly, 22% of new entrants to a doctoral programme were under 30 in Colombia, compared to more than 75% in the Czech Republic, France and Luxembourg (Table B4.2). Different attitudes towards the relevance of work experience before engaging in higher level studies and students’ capacity to delay entry into the labour market may explain differences in the age of new entrants across countries.

The share of internationally mobile students increases on average with the level of education, but this pattern varies across countries. On average across OECD countries, international students make up 9% of new entrants at bachelor’s level, 21% at master’s level and 29% at doctoral level. New entrants at master’s level are more likely to be mobile than at bachelor’s level in all countries except Greece and the Slovak Republic, where the share of international students entering bachelor’s programmes is slightly higher than at master’s level. In Australia and Luxembourg, the share of international students entering master’s level is 40 percentage points higher or more than at bachelor’s level. Similarly, new entrants into doctoral programmes tend to be more mobile than at master’s level, but this varies across countries. In Chile, Iceland, Norway and Switzerland, the share of international students among new doctoral entrants is more than 20 percentage points higher than in master’s programmes. In contrast, the share of international students is lower among entrants to doctoral programmes than those to master’s programmes in Australia, Germany, Greece, Latvia, Lithuania and the United Kingdom (Table B4.2).

Equal opportunities for both men and women to enter tertiary education can contribute to stronger, better and fairer growth by raising the overall level of human capital and labour productivity (OECD, 2011[6]). In the past decade, tertiary attainment has expanded significantly, and the growth has benefited women more than men (see Indicator A1). In 2019, men were under-represented among first-time entrants into tertiary education in almost every OECD and partner country. On average across OECD countries, men made up 45% of first-time entrants into tertiary education, with the share varying from less than 40% in Argentina and Iceland to 50% or more only in Germany, India, Saudi Arabia and Switzerland (Table B4.1).

Despite being under-represented, men are almost as likely as women to enter tertiary education before the age of 25 in most countries. The difference between the share of women and the share of men among first-time entrants under the age of 25 varies by ± 3 percentage points in about two-thirds of countries with data. This difference is higher than 3 percentage points in favour of men in Chile, the Czech Republic and Estonia, peaking to 6 percentage points in the United Kingdom. In contrast, the share of first-time female entrants under the age of 25 is at least 3 percentage points more than that of men in Austria, Denmark, Germany, Norway, Portugal, Sweden and Switzerland. Israel displays the largest difference, with 79% of women first-time entrants below age 25 compared to 61% of men (Figure B4.2).

If current entry patterns continue, it is expected that 57% of young women will enter into tertiary education for the first time before they turn 25 on average across OECD countries, compared to 45% for men. While the entry rate for women was higher than that for men in all OECD countries, this gender gap varies in favour of women, from 3 percentage points in Colombia and Luxembourg to 18 percentage points or more in Denmark, Iceland, New Zealand and Norway (Table B4.1).

The difference between the entry rate of women and men shrinks as the level of education increases. Excluding international students, 18% of women are expected to enter a master’s degree (or equivalent) for the first time before the age of 30, compared to 12% of men on average across OECD countries. The gender gap disappears at doctoral level, where the average entry rates of men and women under the age of 30 are almost equal (0.9% for both men and women) (Table B4.2).

Gender differences in programme orientation and educational performance in upper secondary education may reduce the access opportunities for boys at tertiary level. Boys are more likely than girls to enrol in vocational upper secondary programmes, which in some countries do not provide direct access to tertiary education. They are also less likely to complete upper secondary education and they generally perform at a lower level than girls in learning assessments. Finally, young men also have less to gain in the labour market than women from attaining tertiary education, in both employment levels and earnings, mostly due to the stronger work opportunities available to those with an upper secondary qualification (OECD, 2021[3]).

Despite strong enrolment patterns, the fields of study tertiary entrants enrol in tend to be strongly gender biased. Fields in science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) are of particular policy relevance as countries seek to enhance skills for technological innovation. However, enrolment in such fields remains relatively low. In 2019, while 24% of new tertiary entrants enrolled in the field of business, administration and law, 6% enrolled in the field of natural sciences, mathematics and statistics; 6% in the field of information and communication technologies (ICT); and 15% in engineering, manufacturing and construction (Table B4.3).

Natural sciences, mathematics and statistics are the only STEM fields that have achieved gender parity, although there is a much stronger representation of women in some countries. On average across OECD countries, women represented 52% of new entrants to the field, ranging from 27% in Japan to 65% in the Slovak Republic. In contrast, still few women enter engineering and ICT fields of study. Men still strongly dominate both fields in every OECD country, representing at least 70% of new entrants to ICT and 61% in engineering, manufacturing and construction across all countries (Figure B4.1).

While the share of women entering a STEM field of study remained generally stable between 2013 and 2019 across countries with available data, there are important variations across countries. Slightly more than half of OECD countries with data saw the share of women among tertiary entrants to STEM fields increase. This varies between less than 1 percentage point in Chile, Finland, Iceland, Hungary and Norway to 3 percentage points in the Netherlands and New Zealand and 7 percentage points in Luxembourg. In contrast, the share of women declined by more than 3 percentage points over this period in Slovenia and Turkey (Figure B4.3).

A lower inclination or tendency towards a career in science may begin already in school. Among students who score highly in the Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) tests, it is overwhelmingly boys who more often expect to work in science and engineering (Mann et al., 2020[7]). Labour market opportunities also influence students’ choices in field of study upon entry into tertiary education. Demand for skills in the STEM fields remain heterogeneous: while 84% of 25-64 year-old adults with a degree in natural sciences, mathematics and statistics were employed in 2020 on average across OECD countries, demand is strong for those with an engineering or ICT degree, where employment peaks close to 90%. Yet, even across these high-demand fields, labour markets do not reward men and women equally, even when they both have the same degree. Gender gaps in employment rate in both the fields of engineering, manufacturing and construction as well as ICT were the largest across all fields of study on average across OECD countries in 2020. While 93% of men with an ICT degree were employed, only 81% of women were. Among adults with a degree in engineering, manufacturing and construction, 91% of men were employed compared to 81% of women. These gender differences have not significantly changed compared to 2019, before the COVID-19 pandemic hit (OECD, 2021[8]).

In contrast, the gender imbalance reverses when it comes to care professions such as teachers and nurses. In 2019, women were still largely over-represented among new entrants in the fields of education or health and welfare, where they represented more than 75% of new entrants on average across OECD countries. In some countries, more than four out of five new entrants to these fields are women. For example, in Italy and Latvia, women represent 90% or more of new entrants into the field of education and in Estonia, Finland, Iceland, Latvia and Lithuania, women represent at least 83% of new entrants in the fields of health and welfare. Both professions are likely to experience shortages in the future. In numerous countries, there is an increasing number of teachers reaching retirement. Moreover, attrition can be high particularly for teachers under 24 years of age (see Indicator D6). Pre-existing shortages of nurses were also exacerbated during the COVID-19 pandemic, also because many nurses themselves became infected by the virus (OECD/European Union, 2020[9]). Removing gender stereotypes and implementing policies to increase the attractiveness of these professions to men may help overcome current shortages and increase low retention rates in the profession.

Entry rate is the sum of age-specific entry rates up to an age threshold. The age-specific entry rate is calculated by dividing the number of entrants by age in a certain education level by the total population of the same age. The rate can be calculated including and excluding international students in the numerator of each age-specific entry rate.

First-time tertiary-level entry rate is an estimated probability, based on current entry patterns, that a young adult below an age threshold will enter tertiary education for the first time. The rate can be calculated including and excluding international students in the numerator of each age-specific entry rate.

Bachelor’s/master’s/doctoral level entry rate is an estimated probability, based on current entry patterns, that a young adult below an age threshold will enter a bachelor’s/master’s/doctoral programme during his or her lifetime. The rate can be calculated including and excluding international students in the numerator of each age-specific entry rate.

First-time entrants into tertiary education are students who are enrolling in tertiary education for the first time, without previous education at any other tertiary level. They may enter tertiary education at different levels through short-cycle tertiary (ISCED 5), bachelor’s (ISCED 6) or master’s programmes. First-time entrants to a master’s programme in most cases refer to entrants to a master’s long first degree (ISCED 7-LFD), but may also include entrants to a stage of a programme at ISCED level 7 insufficient for level or partial level completion; and students authorised to enter a master’s programme after validation of acquired experience (VAE).

International students are those students who left their country of origin and moved to another country for the purpose of study.

Master's long first degree (LFD) is a five- to seven-year master’s programme (ISCED 7-LFD) that prepares for a first degree or qualification that is equivalent to master’s level programme in terms of their complexity of content. This includes highly specialised fields such as medicine, dentistry or, in some cases, law and engineering.

New entrants to a tertiary level of education are students enrolling for the first time in a tertiary level of education but who may have previously entered and completed a degree in another tertiary level of education.

Unless otherwise indicated, entry rates are calculated as net entry rates (i.e. as the sum of age-specific entry rates) up to an age threshold. The net entry rate for a single age is obtained by dividing the number of first-time entrants of that age for each type of tertiary education by the total population of the corresponding age. The sum of net entry rates is calculated by adding the rates for each year of age until the age threshold. The result represents the expected probability of entering tertiary education for the first time before the age threshold if current entry patterns are maintained. The age threshold refers to the upper limit for entering into a tertiary degree. Age 25 is used as the upper limit for entering into a short-cycle tertiary, bachelor’s degree and first-time tertiary education overall. At the master’s and doctoral levels, 30 is considered to be the upper age limit for entry. The entry rate below typical age is calculated only if the share of entrants reported with unknown age is below the quality threshold of 10%. Entrants of unknown age are excluded from the calculation of these indicators which may lead to slight underestimation of the rate, particularly when their share is close to the threshold.

Gross entry rates are used when data by age are missing and if the average age of entry is well below the age threshold considered for the calculation of this indicator. In this case, the number of entrants of which the age is unknown is divided by the population at the typical entry age (see Annex 1).

The average age of students is calculated from 1 January for countries where the academic year starts in the second semester of the calendar year and 1 July for countries where the academic year starts in the first semester of the calendar year. As a consequence, the average age of new entrants may be overestimated by up to six months, while that of first-time graduates may be underestimated by the same.

Entry rates are sensitive to changes in the education system, such as the introduction of new programmes or the number of international students. Rates could at times be very high during periods when there are unexpectedly high numbers of entrants. This indicator also reports the share of first-time entrants below the age threshold, alongside the entry rate, to provide contextual information on the relevance of the age threshold for each country.

International students are a significant share of the total student population in some countries, and their numbers can artificially inflate the proportion of today’s young adults who are expected to enter tertiary programmes. When international students are included in the calculation, the percentage of expected first-time entrants into tertiary programmes can change significantly.

For more information, please see the OECD Handbook for Internationally Comparative Education Statistics 2018 (OECD, 2018[10]) and Annex 3 for country-specific notes (tu auhttps://www.oecd.org/education/education-at-a-glance/EAG2021_Annex3_ChapterB.pdf)).

Data refer to the 2018/19 academic year and are based on the UNESCO-UIS/OECD/Eurostat data collection on education statistics administered by the OECD in 2020. Data for some countries may have a different reference year. For details, see Annex 3 at https://www.oecd.org/education/education-at-a-glance/EAG2021_Annex3_ChapterB.pdf.

References

[7] Mann, A. et al. (2020), Dream Jobs? Teenagers’ Career Aspirations and the Future of Work, OECD, Paris, https://www.oecd.org/berlin/publikationen/Dream-Jobs.pdf (accessed on 4 June 2021).

[8] OECD (2021), Education at a Glance Database - Educational attainment and labour-force status, http://stats.oecd.org/Index.aspx?datasetcode=EAG_NEAC.

[1] OECD (2021), The state of higher education - one year into the COVID-19 pandemic, http://dx.doi.org/10.1787/83C41957-EN.

[3] OECD (2021), “Why do more young women than men go on to tertiary education?”, Education Indicators in Focus, No. 79, OECD Publishing, Paris, https://doi.org/10.1787/6f7209d1-en.

[5] OECD (2019), Education at a Glance 2019: OECD Indicators, OECD Publishing, Paris, https://dx.doi.org/10.1787/f8d7880d-en.

[10] OECD (2018), OECD Handbook for Internationally Comparative Education Statistics 2018: Concepts, Standards, Definitions and Classifications, OECD Publishing, Paris, https://dx.doi.org/10.1787/9789264304444-en.

[6] OECD (2011), Report on the Gender Initiative: Gender Equality in Education, Employment and Entrepreneurship, OECD, Paris, https://www.oecd.org/education/48111145.pdf.

[9] OECD/European Union (2020), Health at a Glance: Europe 2020: State of Health in the EU Cycle, OECD Publishing, Paris, https://dx.doi.org/10.1787/82129230-en.

[4] OECD/Eurostat/UNESCO Institute for Statistics (2015), ISCED 2011 Operational Manual: Guidelines for Classifying National Education Programmes and Related Qualifications, OECD Publishing, Paris, https://dx.doi.org/10.1787/9789264228368-en.

[2] OECD/Eurostat/UNESCO Institute for Statistics (2013), International Standard Classification of Education, ISCED 2011, UNESCO Institute for Statistics, Montreal, http://uis.unesco.org/sites/default/files/documents/international-standard-classification-of-education-isced-2011-en.pdf.

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