Indicator B5. Who graduates from tertiary education?

Students who are interested in pursuing tertiary education have access to a variety of pathways in different countries. The vast majority of OECD countries promote academic, professional or vocational programmes at the bachelor's level to develop necessary competencies for students attending tertiary education. On average, 77% of first-time tertiary graduates in OECD countries obtain a bachelor’s degree (Figure B5.1). In 13 countries, the share is 85% or above and it is 100% in Greece where a bachelor’s degree is the only pathway available to those entering tertiary education for the first-time (Table B5.1).

Some OECD countries also encourage participation in short-cycle tertiary programmes to enhance employability and facilitate transitions into the workforce. In 2018, the Ministers of European Higher Education Area (EHEA) recognised the importance of short-cycle tertiary programmes within the framework of the Bologna Process. They acknowledged the programmes as instrumental in equipping students with the skills needed for employment and further academic study. They were also found to be essential for promoting social cohesion by providing access to higher education for individuals who may not have otherwise considered it. Therefore, they were incorporated as a stand-alone qualification within the EHEA's qualification framework (EHEA, 2018[4]). On average across OECD countries, 16% of first-time tertiary graduates attain a short-cycle tertiary degree, though the importance of this level varies widely across countries. In Austria and the Republic of Türkiye, for instance, almost half of first-time tertiary graduates (46% and 47%, respectively) obtain a short-cycle tertiary diploma compared to less than 2% in the Czech Republic, Germany, Poland and Switzerland (Table B5.1).

Given that short-cycle tertiary programmes generally have an occupational or professional focus, they are more likely to be pursued by vocational upper secondary graduates. In Austria, Luxembourg, Norway and Spain, short-cycle tertiary is the only pathway into tertiary education available for VET upper secondary graduates, and completion of short-cycle tertiary yields access to bachelor’s level programmes (Table B1.4. in Indicator B1). However, in other OECD countries, short-cycle tertiary is not the only route into tertiary education for VET upper secondary graduates. Some countries (e.g. Germany, the Netherlands and Switzerland) have programmes at bachelor’s and master’s level, which act as continuation of VET.

Master’s long first degrees are another pathway pursued by tertiary students in some countries, although the average share of first-time tertiary graduates at this level is relatively small (8%) across OECD counties compared to the other two pathways. In certain countries, however, a notable number of first-time graduates complete these programmes, which typically provide specialised professional subjects such as medicine. In Australia and Sweden, for example, at least one-quarter of first-time tertiary students obtain a master’s long first degree (Table B5.1).

Many OECD countries are aiming to reduce the age at which students complete tertiary education, so that they can enter the workforce and contribute to their economies as early as possible. In 2021, the average age of first-time tertiary graduates was 26 across OECD countries. There is, however, notable variation between countries, ranging from 22 in Japan to 29 in Latvia (Table B5.1). The age at which students graduate from tertiary education is primarily determined by their age at entrance and the theoretical length of the programmes in which they enrol. The structure of countries’ upper secondary education systems, selection processes into tertiary education, gap years, conscription or entrance into the labour market may all delay entry into tertiary education, resulting in older graduation ages. In Iceland, Sweden and Switzerland, for instance, where students have a variety of pathways before entering tertiary education and have the flexibility to switch between programmes or transfer to adult learning, they enter tertiary education and graduate later than in other countries. Conscription in Israel, and restricted entry to tertiary education due to fixed number of admissible entrants (numerus clausus policies) in Finland combined with students commonly taking a voluntary gap year, contribute to an average first-time graduation age of 28 in these two countries.

The average age of graduates also varies by level of education across OECD countries. The average age of first-time short-cycle tertiary graduates is 27, the same as that of first-time master’s degree graduates, while for first-time bachelor’s graduates the average is 25. There is greater variation in the age distribution of short-cycle tertiary graduates across countries, reflecting differences in countries’ education systems. In Austria, for instance, where short-cycle tertiary programmes are designed as a continuation of upper secondary VET programmes for younger learners, the average age at graduation is 20. In other countries, older first-time graduates can be explained by having short-cycle tertiary programmes specifically designed for older students, as well as students taking longer to graduate (Table B5.1).

Encouraging students to pursue studies in a field that aligns with their interests and skills has the potential to yield positive outcomes in both the labour market and society as a whole. Gender stereotyping is likely to dissuade women and men from pursuing certain careers, particularly in science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) for women and health and welfare fields for men (Makarova, Aeschlimann and Herzog, 2019[5]).

In recent years, there has been a notable increase in the number of women graduating from tertiary education, changing the gender disparity in tertiary participation, with more women than men now graduating from this level. Female tertiary graduates now make up the majority of first-time tertiary graduates, accounting for 58% of the total on average across OECD countries. Despite this reversal of traditional gender patterns, old gender stereotypes in the choice of field of study still persist. The STEM fields have been traditionally dominated by male students and in 2021, still only 33% of tertiary STEM graduates across OECD countries were female, ranging from 20% or less in Chile and Japan to 40% or more in Greece, Iceland, New Zealand and Poland (Table B5.2). The share is above 40% in many partner countries (Argentina, India, Romania, Saudi Arabia and South Africa). According to research, the under-representation of women in OECD countries may be attributable to them experiencing isolation, micro-aggressions and a male-dominated culture when studying in these fields (Ong, Smith and Ko, 2018[6]; Blackburn, 2017[7]). Female students in STEM fields might feel less of a sense of belonging than their male counterparts, which has been associated with a lower likelihood of choosing or persisting in these programmes (Lewis et al., 2017[8]). The disparity between the share of female tertiary graduates in STEM and health and welfare fields is illustrated in Figure B5.4. Men have also been under-represented in some fields, such as health and welfare. In 2021, 23% of tertiary graduates in health and welfare were male on average across OECD countries, and they made up less than 20% in nearly one-third of countries.

The average shares of female tertiary graduates in some fields within STEM are even lower: 23% in information and communication technologies (ICT), and 28% in engineering, for example. However, since 2015, some countries (e.g. Australia, Iceland, Ireland, Luxembourg and Saudi Arabia) have reported promising increases in the share of female tertiary ICT graduates, by more than 8 percentage points. Over the same period, the presence of female tertiary graduates in STEM fields has also increased by around 5 percentage points or more in a smaller number of countries, including Iceland, Ireland, Luxembourg, New Zealand and South Africa (Table B5.2). In the countries where the representation of female tertiary graduates in STEM has increased, their male peers in health and welfare have shown a similar patterns, although with a smaller percentage point change. However, Canada and Türkiye have seen the gender gap in these disciplines widen, with the proportion of female tertiary graduates in health and welfare increasing notably since 2015, while falling in ICT (Table B5.2).

Arts and humanities; business, administration and law; health and welfare; services; and STEM are the most popular fields of study among tertiary education graduates in OECD countries. Of these five broad fields of study, the proportions studying STEM, services and business, administration and law vary the most across different levels of education (Figure B5.5).

On average, more than one-third of OECD graduates of upper secondary and post-secondary non-tertiary education from vocational programmes studied a STEM field. This may partly be driven by the fact that upper secondary VET plays a major role in preparing students for entry-level jobs in manufacturing and construction, and that graduates from these programmes fall into the STEM category. In nearly all OECD countries, STEM fields account for the largest share of VET graduates at this level. In some countries, the share is even more concentrated. This is the case in Iceland, Israel and Korea where more than 50% of VET students graduate from STEM fields – possibly as a result of the focus on “traditional” VET occupations, as described above (Table B5.3).

At tertiary level (short-cycle tertiary or bachelor’s or above), less than 25% of those graduating in OECD countries studied a STEM field. At this level, the broad category of STEM translates into various specialised fields of study (e.g. engineering, biology or physics), compared to upper secondary and post-secondary where the STEM category would include, among others, electricians and different types of technicians. STEM is the most popular field in short-cycle tertiary education, closely followed by business, administration and law. Given the specialised nature of the short-cycle tertiary sector and its role in addressing specific labour-market demands, it might be prudent for education planners to prioritise a focused approach towards a particular field. This is the case in Israel, Mexico and Norway, where the majority of students at this level graduate from a STEM programme, as short-cycle tertiary programmes are part of the higher vocational sector and play a key role in upskilling upper secondary VET graduates.

The broad field of services accounts for the smallest share of graduates at bachelor’s or higher levels (4%) compared to around 15% at upper secondary and post-secondary non-tertiary levels or short-cycle tertiary (Table B5.3). This partly reflects the kind of programmes and qualifications included in this category, such as domestic services (e.g. caretaking or cleaning), hair and beauty services, and hotel and catering, which are usually targeted by vocational programmes rather than tertiary ones. In Croatia, Estonia, Italy, Lithuania and Portugal, more than one-quarter of graduates at upper secondary and post-secondary non-tertiary levels studied services. Some programmes and qualifications within this field may also be targeted by tertiary level programmes (e.g. tourism or transport studies).

The broad field of business, administration and law is well represented across the different levels of education but more so at the tertiary level. This may be due to the negligible share of VET students in all OECD countries studying law-related fields, which are primarily aimed at those studying a bachelor’s degree or above. One-quarter of graduates with a bachelor’s degree or above in OECD countries completed a programme in business, administration and law. In some countries, such as Colombia and Luxembourg, this field has even greater prominence, accounting for more than 40% of tertiary graduates (Table B5.3).

On average across OECD countries, the distribution of graduates by fields of study and level of education has not changed substantially since 2015. The only notable change has been a 3 percentage point increase in the proportion of graduates from STEM fields at upper secondary and post-secondary non-tertiary and short-cycle tertiary programmes (Table B5.3).

First-time graduates refer to students who graduated for the first-time at a given level of education during the reference period. Therefore, students who have graduated multiple times over the years are counted as a graduate each year, but as a first-time graduate only once per level of education.

First-time tertiary graduates refer to students who graduate for the first-time with a tertiary degree, regardless of the education programme in which they are enrolled. This definition is applied in Table B5.1.

The theoretical duration of programmes is the regulatory or common-practice time it takes a full-time student to complete a level of education.

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 6 months while that of first-time graduates may be underestimated by the same.

For more information see the OECD Handbook for Internationally Comparative Education Statistics (OECD, 2018[11]) and Education at a Glance 2023 Sources, Methodologies and Technical Notes (OECD, 2023[3]).

Completion rate of students who graduate at the same ISCED level which they entered: number of graduates in a given calendar year and ISCED level divided by the number of entrants to that same ISCED level with theoretical duration plus three calendar years before.

Data refer to the 2020/21 academic year and are based on the UNESCO-UIS/OECD/Eurostat data collection on education statistics administered by the OECD in 2022. Data for some countries may have a different reference year. For more information see Education at a Glance 2023 Sources, Methodologies and Technical Notes (OECD, 2023[3]).


[7] Blackburn, H. (2017), “The status of women in STEM in higher education: A review of the literature 2007–2017”, Science & Technology Libraries, Vol. 36/3, pp. 235-273,

[4] EHEA (2018), Paris Communiqué, European Higher Education Area,

[8] Lewis, K. et al. (2017), “Fitting in to move forward: Belonging, gender, and persistence in the physical sciences, technology, engineering, and mathematics (pSTEM)”, Psychology of Women Quarterly, Vol. 41/4, pp. 420-436,

[5] Makarova, E., B. Aeschlimann and W. Herzog (2019), “The gender gap in STEM fields: The impact of the gender stereotype of math and science on secondary students’ career aspirations”, Frontiers in Education, Vol. 4,

[3] OECD (2023), Education at a Glance 2023 Sources, Methodologies and Technical Notes, OECD Publishing, Paris,

[10] OECD (2022), Pathways to Professions: Understanding Higher Vocational and Professional Tertiary Education Systems, OECD Reviews of Vocational Education and Training, OECD Publishing, Paris,

[11] OECD (2018), OECD Handbook for Internationally Comparative Education Statistics 2018: Concepts, Standards, Definitions and Classifications, OECD Publishing, Paris,

[1] OECD (2016), OECD Science, Technology and Innovation Outlook 2016, OECD Publishing, Paris, (accessed on 24 May 2023).

[2] OECD (2015), Education Policy Outlook 2015: Making Reforms Happen, OECD Publishing, Paris,

[6] Ong, M., J. Smith and L. Ko (2018), “Counterspaces for women of color in STEM higher education: Marginal and central spaces for persistence and success”, Journal of Research in Science Teaching, Vol. 55/2, pp. 206-245,

[9] UIS (2012), International Standard Classification of Education: ISCED 2011, UNESCO Institute for Statistics,

Metadata, Legal and Rights

This document, as well as any data and map included herein, are without prejudice to the status of or sovereignty over any territory, to the delimitation of international frontiers and boundaries and to the name of any territory, city or area. Extracts from publications may be subject to additional disclaimers, which are set out in the complete version of the publication, available at the link provided.

© OECD 2023

The use of this work, whether digital or print, is governed by the Terms and Conditions to be found at