United Kingdom

  • The share of young adults with tertiary attainment has increased considerably in the United Kingdom in recent decades. In 2021, 57% of 25-34 year-olds had a tertiary degree compared to only 29% in 2000. On average across the OECD, the share of young adults with a tertiary degree increased from 27% to 48% in the same period.

  • Higher educational attainment is strongly related to improved wage prospects in the United Kingdom. In 2020, workers with upper secondary attainment in the United Kingdom earned 42% more than those with below upper secondary attainment, and those with tertiary attainment earned more than twice as much. This earnings advantage was greater than across the OECD on average.

  • The United Kingdom has the highest completion rate among OECD countries with available data at bachelor’s level. In the United Kingdom, 69% of bachelor’s students graduate within the theoretical programme duration. Across OECD countries with data, the completion rate within the theoretical programme duration ranges from 12% to 69%.

  • The United Kingdom invests more per student than the OECD average at all levels of education. Expenditure per student at tertiary level in the United Kingdom is higher than at other levels of education, and it is the third highest among OECD countries. The average expenditure per student in the United Kingdom is USD 29 688 per year at the tertiary level, which is about USD 17 800 higher than that of the primary level and USD 16 600 higher than that of the secondary level.

  • Teachers in public primary and secondary schools in England and Scotland earn less than other tertiary-educated workers on average. The average salary of lower secondary teachers in England is 5.3% less than other tertiary-educated workers, while teachers in Scotland earn 10.9% less. On average, teachers earned 9.5% less than other tertiary-educated workers across the OECD.

  • Educational attainment has been increasing throughout the OECD, in particular at tertiary level. Between 2000 and 2021, the share of 25-34 year-olds with tertiary attainment increased on average by 21 percentage points. In the United Kingdom, the share increased at an even faster pace, by 29 percentage points (from 29% in 2000 to 57% in 2021) (Figure 1). The United Kingdom is one of the 14 OECD countries where at least half of 25-34 year-olds have a tertiary education.

  • Upper secondary attainment is often seen as a minimum qualification for successful labour market participation. Although the general increase in educational attainment has seen a parallel decline in the share of 25-34 year-olds without upper secondary attainment, 14% of young adults across the OECD still left school without an upper secondary qualification. In the United Kingdom, the share is 12%, which is lower than the OECD average.

  • Higher educational attainment is often associated with better employment prospects and the United Kingdom is no exception. In 2021 the employment rate among 25-34 year-olds with tertiary education in the United Kingdom was 26 percentage points higher than among those with below upper secondary attainment and 7 percentage points higher than among those with upper secondary or post-secondary non-tertiary attainment. On average across OECD countries, the employment rate among 25-34 year-olds with a tertiary qualification was 26 percentage points higher than among those with below upper secondary attainment and 8 percentage points higher than among those with upper secondary or post-secondary non-tertiary attainment. While the positive link between educational attainment and employment rates holds for both men and for women across the OECD, it is particularly strong for women. In the United Kingdom, 52% of women with below upper secondary attainment were employed in 2021, compared to 88% of those with tertiary attainment. In contrast, the figures were 72% and 93% for men.

  • Across the OECD, the labour market benefits of tertiary attainment have proved especially strong during economic crises. This was also the case during the COVID-19 pandemic in the United Kingdom. Between 2019 and 2020, unemployment for 25-34 year-old workers with below upper secondary attainment increased by 0.5 percentage points in the United Kingdom, by 0.4 percentage points for workers with upper secondary attainment and by 0.7 percentage points for workers with tertiary attainment. In 2021, unemployment for workers with below upper secondary attainment increased by 1.4 percentage points in the United Kingdom compared to 2020, by 0.7 percentage points for workers with upper secondary attainment and decreased by 0.5 percentage points for workers with tertiary attainment.

  • Educational attainment affects not just employment prospects, but also wage levels. On average across the OECD, 25-64 year-old workers with upper secondary or post-secondary non-tertiary attainment earn 29% more than workers with below upper secondary attainment, while those with tertiary attainment earn about twice as much. In the United Kingdom, the earnings advantage of tertiary-educated workers was even greater than the OECD average. In 2020, workers with upper secondary attainment earned 42% more than those with below upper secondary attainment and those with tertiary attainment earned more than twice as much.

  • National averages provide only an incomplete picture of the situation in any given country. In most OECD countries, there are large differences in educational attainment across subnational regions. This is also the case in the United Kingdom. In 2021, the difference between the region with the highest share of 25-64 year-olds with tertiary attainment (Greater London, at 70%) and that with the lowest share (North East England, at 40%) was 30 percentage points. These subnational variations do not only reflect differences in education opportunities. To a large degree, they are due to economic conditions and internal migration patterns.

  • The age at which children enter early childhood education differs widely across countries. In the United Kingdom, early childhood education starts offering intentional education objectives for children younger than 1 and 19% of children under 3 are enrolled in early childhood education. Across OECD countries, the average enrolment rate among children below the age of 3 is 27%, but the rates range from less than 1% to 63%. The enrolment rate among 3-5 year-olds increases substantially in all OECD countries. In the United Kingdom, 72% of all children of this age are enrolled in early childhood education, which is below the OECD average of 83%. However, many children in this age group are enrolled in primary education instead, which begins at the age of 4 in Northern Ireland and 5 in England, Scotland and Wales.

  • The average age of graduation from general upper secondary programmes varies from 17 to 21 years across OECD countries and is 17 years in the United Kingdom. Differences in the average age of graduation from vocational upper secondary education are much larger and vary from 16 to 34 years across the OECD. These differences largely depend on whether vocational upper secondary students usually enrol in these programmes towards the end of their compulsory education or in mid-career. In the United Kingdom, the average age of graduation from vocational upper secondary education is 20 years, which is below the OECD average at 22 years (Figure 2).

  • In almost all OECD countries, women make up the majority of those graduating from general upper secondary education. In the United Kingdom, men and women are equally represented. In contrast, men are overrepresented among graduates of vocational upper secondary programmes in most OECD countries, but not in the United Kingdom where they make up 46% of all vocational upper secondary graduates, below the OECD average (55%).

  • In the United Kingdom, 45% of 18-24 year-olds are still in full- or part-time education or training at either upper secondary or tertiary level (significantly below the OECD average of 54%). A subset of these students (19% of 18-24 year-olds) combine their education or training with some form of employment in the United Kingdom, compared to 17% on average across the OECD.

  • One significant difference across countries’ education systems is on whether or not vocational upper secondary programmes provide access to tertiary education. In 12 OECD countries and other participants, all vocational upper secondary graduates have direct access to tertiary education. In the United Kingdom only 49% of graduates from vocational upper secondary programme have direct access to tertiary education.

  • As is the case in all OECD countries, a majority of students enrolled at tertiary level in the United Kingdom are bachelor’s students (63%). However, the next commonest enrolment level varies from country to country. In the United Kingdom, master's students make up the second largest group of tertiary students at 19%. This is also the case in 25 other OECD countries, while in the remaining 14 countries with available data, short-cycle tertiary students form the second largest group.

  • At 27%, business, administration and law was the most popular field of study among new entrants into tertiary education in the United Kingdom, which is the case in most OECD countries. Despite the growing need for digital skills and the good employment prospects of students with degrees in information and communication technologies (ICT), only a small fraction of entrants into tertiary education choose this field. In the United Kingdom, 85% of 25-64 year-olds with a tertiary ICT qualification are employed, but ICT students make up 6% of new entrants into tertiary education. This is the same level as the OECD average. Over the past decade, the popularity of this field has, however, increased. Data from the University and College Admissions Service (UCAS) showed that the number of acceptances to computer science courses increased by nearly 50% between 2011 and 2020 (UCAS, 2021[1]). Recognising the importance of this field of study, the UK Government has made significant investments to improve the teaching of computer science in schools, including GBP 84 million for the creation of a National Centre for Computing Education in 2018 to train teachers and provide them with supporting resources.

  • All OECD countries devote a substantial share of national output to educational institutions. In 2019, OECD countries spent on average 4.9% of their gross domestic product (GDP) on primary to tertiary educational institutions. In the United Kingdom, the corresponding share was 6%.

  • Public spending on primary to tertiary education was 11.9% of total government expenditure in the United Kingdom (Figure 3), higher than the OECD average (10.6%). Also, relative to GDP, public spending on primary to tertiary education (4.9%) is higher than the OECD average (4.4%).

  • Spending on educational institutions as share of GDP or public budgets are important measures of the importance that countries place on education in their budgeting decisions. However, they do not show the total amount of funding per student because GDP levels, public budgets and student numbers vary from country to country. Across primary to tertiary education, OECD countries spend an average of USD 11 990 per student (in equivalent USD converted using PPPs for GDP) on educational institutions each year. In comparison, the United Kingdom spent USD 15 453 per student in 2019. Its cumulative expenditure on educating a student from the age of 6 to 15 was USD 123 983, which was above the OECD average of USD 105 502.

  • Across OECD countries, the provision of education at primary and secondary levels in terms of curricula, teaching styles and organisational management leads, on average, to similar patterns of expenditure per student from primary to post-secondary non-tertiary levels. OECD countries as a whole spend on average around USD 9 923 per student at primary and USD 11 400 per student at secondary level. In the United Kingdom, the values are USD 11 936 at primary and USD 13 041 per student at secondary level.

  • In contrast to lower levels of education, spending on tertiary education varies widely across OECD countries. Expenditure per student at tertiary level in the United Kingdom is higher than at other levels of education, as is the case in almost all other OECD countries. The average expenditure per student in the United Kingdom is USD 29 688 per year, which is about USD 17 800 higher than that of the primary level and USD 16 600 higher than that of the secondary level. It is among the highest across OECD countries. The average expenditure at tertiary level (USD 17 559) is driven up by high values in a few countries. At 20%, the share of research and development (R&D) expenditure makes up a smaller fraction of expenditure on tertiary education in the United Kingdom than on average across OECD countries (29%).

  • Public funding dominates non-tertiary education (primary, secondary and post-secondary non-tertiary) in all OECD countries, even after transfers to the private sector. On average across the OECD, private funding accounts for 10% of expenditure at primary, secondary and post-secondary non-tertiary levels, while this share was 16% in the United Kingdom in 2019. In contrast, private expenditure at tertiary level was higher in all OECD countries. In the United Kingdom, the share of private expenditure at tertiary level reached 73%, which was significantly above the OECD average of 31%, after public-to-private transfers. These latter accounted for 25% of expenditure on educational institutions at this level.

  • The salaries of teachers and school heads are an important determinant of the attractiveness of the teaching profession, but they also represent the single largest expenditure item in formal education. In most OECD countries, the statutory salaries of teachers (and school heads) in public educational institutions increase with the level of education they teach, and also with experience. Actual salaries also increase with the level of education. On average across OECD countries, actual salaries range from USD 41 941 at the pre-primary level to USD 53 682 at the upper secondary level. In England (UK), actual salaries average USD 47 451 at pre-primary level and USD 52 718 at upper secondary level. In Scotland (UK), actual salaries average USD 49 612 at pre-primary level and USD 49 612 at upper secondary level.

  • Between 2015 and 2021, on average across OECD countries, the statutory salaries of teachers at lower secondary level (general programmes) with 15 years of experience and the most prevalent qualifications increased by 6% in real terms. In England (UK), salaries increased less than the OECD average, by 4%. In Scotland (UK), on the other hand, salaries increased more than the OECD average, by 9%.

  • Teachers’ average actual salaries remain lower than earnings of tertiary-educated workers in almost all OECD countries, and at almost all levels of education. This is also the case in England and Scotland (UK). Lower secondary (general programme) teachers in England (UK) earn 5.3% less than other tertiary-educated workers, while teachers in Scotland (UK) earn 10.9% less. In contrast school head actual salaries in England and Scotland (UK) are much higher than the earnings of other tertiary educated workers. This is similar to most OECD countries, where school heads tend to earn well above the average earnings of tertiary educated workers.

  • The average number of teaching hours per year required from a typical teacher in public educational institutions in OECD countries tends to decrease as the level of education increases. In contrast, teachers at all levels of education have to teach the same number of hours in Scotland (UK).

  • Based on official regulations or agreements, annual teaching hours in Scotland (UK) are 855 hours per year at all levels of education from pre-primary to upper secondary (Figure 4).

  • During their working hours, teachers also perform various non-teaching tasks such as lesson planning and preparation, marking students’ work and communicating or co-operating with parents or guardians. At the upper secondary level, 37% of teachers’ working time is formally dedicated to non-teaching activities in Scotland (UK), compared to an average of 56% across OECD countries.

  • The duration of initial teacher education for primary and lower secondary teachers ranges from 2.5 years to 6.5 years across OECD countries. In both England and Scotland (UK), initial teacher education typically lasts 4 years for prospective lower secondary teachers (general programmes). It is the same length for prospective primary teachers in both nations. As is the case in almost all OECD countries, a tertiary degree is awarded to prospective teachers of all levels of education upon completion of their initial teacher training.

  • Continuing professional development is compulsory for all teachers of general programmes in most countries with data, and Scotland (UK) is no exception. At secondary level, professional development activities are compulsory for all teachers.

  • Among 25-64 year-olds in the United Kingdom, bachelor's degrees are the most common tertiary attainment at 26% of the population followed by master's degrees with 13% and short-cycle tertiary qualifications with 9%. This is similar to the OECD average, where bachelor’s degrees are most common (19%), followed by master’s degrees (14%) and short cycle tertiary qualifications (7%). As in all OECD countries and other participants, only a small fraction of the population holds a doctoral degree: the share is 2% in the United Kingdom compared to 1% on average across the OECD.

  • On average, tertiary attainment generates a wide range of labour-market benefits, including high employment rates. Yet, there are significant differences depending on the field of study. In 2021, employment rates in the United Kingdom were highest among tertiary-educated individuals who studied engineering, manufacturing and construction with 87% and lowest among those who studied health and welfare at 82%. However, these differences need to be put into perspective. Even among 25-64 year-olds with tertiary attainment in the field with the lowest employment rate, this was 2.4 percentage points higher than among those with upper secondary attainment (all fields combined).

  • Wages also differ according to the field of study. In the United Kingdom, tertiary attainment in engineering, manufacturing and construction generates the highest earnings. Full-time full-year workers aged 25-64 with a tertiary degree in this field earn on average 56% more than workers with upper secondary attainment (all fields combined). In contrast, tertiary attainment in arts and humanities, social sciences, journalism and information leads to the lowest wages. Workers with this educational background earn on average 2% more than the wage of workers with upper secondary attainment (all fields combined).

  • Despite the labour market advantages of a tertiary degree, many tertiary students do not graduate on time or do not graduate at all. In the United Kingdom, 69% of bachelor’s students graduate within the theoretical programme duration, the highest share among OECD countries with available data. Across the OECD, the completion rate within the theoretical programme duration ranges from 12% to 69%. Completion rates three years after the theoretical programme duration are significantly higher in most countries and the differences between OECD countries somewhat narrower. In the United Kingdom, 85% of bachelor’s students have graduated within three years after the end of the theoretical programme duration, which was also the highest among OECD countries with data. On average, 68% of bachelor’s students graduated within three years after the end of the theoretical programme duration.

  • In all OECD countries, tertiary completion rates are higher for women than for men. In the United Kingdom, 87% of women graduated within three years after the end of the theoretical programme duration at bachelor’s level, compared to 82% of men.

  • In most OECD countries including in the United Kingdom, tertiary-educated adults have higher rates of participation in non-formal education and training than those with a lower level of educational attainment. In 2021, 19% of 25-64 year-olds with tertiary attainment in the United Kingdom had participated in non-formal education and training in the four weeks prior to being surveyed, compared to 5% of their peers with below upper secondary attainment. Across the OECD, 16% of adults with tertiary attainment had undertaken non-formal education and training in the four weeks prior to being surveyed, compared to 4% of those with below upper secondary attainment.

  • Entering tertiary education often means costs for students and their families, in terms of tuition fees, foregone earnings and living expenses, although they may also receive financial support to help them afford it. However, public policies on tuition fees and financial support for students differ greatly across countries. In the United Kingdom, tuition fees at tertiary level vary according to students’ home regions and their region of study within the United Kingdom. At USD 12 255, tuition fees for home students in England (UK) are the highest for a bachelor’s programme in publicly supported institutions across OECD countries with available data. In contrast, home students studying full-time in Scotland (UK) are not required to pay tuition fees when studying for a first tertiary degree (Hubble, Bolton and Lewis, 2021[2]).

  • OECD countries have different approaches to providing financial support to students enrolled in tertiary education, but in general countries with the highest level of public transfers to the private sector are those that also tend to have the highest tuition fees. In six OECD countries and other participants, including England (UK), at least 80% of national students receive public financial support in the form of student loans, scholarships or grants. In another six countries and other participants, less than 25% of students receive financial support. In these countries, public financial support is targeted on selected groups of students, such as those from socio-economically disadvantaged families.

  • Enabling students to enrol on a part-time basis is an important way to facilitate access to tertiary education. Many part-time students would not be able to study full time, for example because they have child-care responsibilities or have to work to fund their studies. The share of part-time students at the tertiary level in the United Kingdom is 19%, slightly below the OECD average (22%). Compared to 2013, it has decreased by 9 percentage points.

  • Staff at tertiary level tend to start their careers relatively late due to the length of the education they need to qualify. In the United Kingdom, only 6% of academic staff are aged under 30, slightly below the OECD average (8%). In contrast, the share of academic staff aged 50 or over is 37%, which is below the OECD average by 3 percentage points.

  • The COVID-19 pandemic disrupted traditional schooling in 2020 and the first half of 2021, leading to school closures across all OECD countries. While most shut down their premises entirely in the wake of the pandemic in 2020, by 2021 the situation had improved and returned to normal in most countries in 2022. In England (UK), primary schools were fully closed for 34 days and partially closed for 38 days, while secondary schools were fully closed for 44 days and partially closed for 28 days during the school year 2019/20 (Figure 5).1 In 2020/21, both primary and secondary schools were fully closed for 44 days. In 2021/22, schools at all levels of education remained fully open.

  • National examinations have also been affected by the pandemic. At general upper secondary level, 18 OECD countries postponed their national examinations during the school year 2019/20, while 10 countries even cancelled them entirely. In 2020/21, national examinations were postponed in 9 countries and cancelled in 6 countries. England (UK) cancelled its national examinations in 2019/20 and in 2020/21.

  • Most countries conducted assessments of the impact of school closures on learning outcomes at various levels of education and along several dimensions. England (UK) has conducted studies to evaluate the effects of the pandemic and its impact on primary, lower secondary, upper secondary general and vocational education. The assessments covered mathematics and reading. Like many other countries, England (UK) also evaluated dimensions such as the relations between parents and students during lockdowns as well as the mental health and well-being of students and teachers.

  • In school year 2022, national programmes to support students affected by the pandemic were implemented in England (UK) at pre-primary, primary, lower secondary, upper secondary general and vocational and tertiary level. At primary to upper secondary education, measures to address the effects of the COVID-19 pandemic included accelerated education or catch-up programmes for students who dropped out of school, referral systems for students in need of specialised services, psychosocial and mental health support to students, tutoring programmes or financial support for tutoring.2

  • The challenges related to the COVID-19 pandemic have created additional costs for education systems. Preliminary budget estimates for 2021 suggest that, compared to 2020, the education budget at pre-primary to upper secondary level in the United Kingdom increased slightly (by between 1% and 5%, in nominal terms), while it increased strongly (by more than 5%) at the tertiary level.

  • The COVID-19 pandemic had a significant impact on adult learning in most OECD countries. In 2020, the share of adults who participated in a formal or non-formal education and training activity in the four weeks prior to being surveyed decreased by 2 percentage points on average across OECD countries compared with 2019. However, in 2021, participation in non-formal education and training returned to pre-pandemic levels in most countries. In the United Kingdom, the share of adults participating in a formal or non-formal education and training activity remained unchanged between 2019 and 2020. From 2020 to 2021, it increased by 1 percentage point and has thus increased above pre-pandemic levels.

  • Young adults who are not in employment, education or training (NEET) for prolonged periods are at risk of adverse economic and social outcomes in both the short and the long term. After increasing during the COVID-19 pandemic in 2020, the share of 18-24 year-olds who are NEET in the United Kingdom declined in 2021. The share of NEET among young adults was 14% in 2021, at pre-COVID levels.

References

Hubble, S., P. Bolton and J. Lewis (2021), “Student support for undergraduates across the UK”, No. 8237, House of Commons Library, https://researchbriefings.files.parliament.uk/documents/CBP-8237/CBP-8237.pdf (accessed on 9 September 2022).

OECD (2022), Education at a Glance 2022: OECD Indicators, OECD Publishing, Paris, https://dx.doi.org/10.1787/69096873-en.

OECD (2022), “Regional education”, OECD Regional Statistics (database), https://dx.doi.org/10.1787/213e806c-en.

For more information on Education at a Glance 2022 and to access the full set of Indicators, see: https://doi.org/10.1787/3197152b-en

For more information on the methodology used during the data collection for each indicator, the references to the sources and the specific notes for each country, See Annex 3 (https://www.oecd.org/education/education-at-a-glance/EAG2022_X3.pdf).

For general information on the methodology, please refer to the OECD Handbook for Internationally Comparative Education Statistics: Concepts, Standards, Definitions and Classifications (https://doi.org/10.1787/9789264304444-en).

Updated data can be found on line at http://dx.doi.org/10.1787/eag-data-en and by following the StatLinks under the tables and charts in the publication.

Data on subnational regions for selected indicators are available in the OECD Regional Statistics (database) (OECD, 2022). When interpreting the results on subnational entities, readers should take into account that the population size of subnational entities can vary widely within countries. For example, regional variation in enrolment may be influenced by students attending school in a different region from their area of residence, particularly at higher levels of education. Also, regional disparities tend to be higher when more subnational entities are used in the analysis.

Explore, compare and visualise more data and analysis using the Education GPS:

https://gpseducation.oecd.org/

The data on educational responses during COVID-19 were collected and processed by the OECD based on the Joint Survey on National Responses to COVID-19 School Closures, a collaborative effort conducted by the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO); the UNESCO Institute for Statistics (UIS); the United Nations Children's Fund (UNICEF); the World Bank; and the OECD.

Notes

← 1. In this context, schools were “fully closed” when there were government-mandated and/or recommended closures of educational institutions (e.g. the closure of buildings for students) affecting all or most of the student population enrolled at a given level of education. In many countries, including in England (UK), schools were still open for vulnerable students and/or children of key workers, despite school closures at the national level. Schools were “partially closed” when there was a government-mandated and/or recommended re-opening of schools in certain areas, or a phased re-opening by grade level or age, or the use of a hybrid model combining in-person education at school and distance education.

← 2. More information about education recovery support measures can be found at the following website: https://www.gov.uk/government/publications/education-recovery-support/education-recovery-support--2

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