Indicator B1. Who participates in education?

Data on participation in vocational programmes provide insights on the importance of VET in the education and training systems of different countries, where there is considerable variation, especially at upper secondary level. Participation patterns are also sometimes viewed as an indicator of the attractiveness of VET. This is indeed the case in countries where enrolment in vocational rather than a general programmes is a matter of student choice, subject to few or no constraints. In many countries, however, student choice is subject to various constraints. Half of the countries that participated in the 2022 Survey of Upper Secondary Completion Rates report that students’ choices are limited by their school performance (e.g. grades in lower secondary education). Performance in an external examination is a factor in nine countries and teacher or school recommendations matter in seven countries. Finally, in four countries the type of lower secondary education pursued limits the upper secondary options available to students. Only six countries with available information report that students’ choice of upper secondary programme was entirely unconstrained (see the Dashboard on Upper Secondary Education Systems).

Enrolment patterns among 15-19 year-olds vary considerably across countries, both in terms of overall enrolment rates and the level at which students study. In many OECD countries nine out of ten teenagers in this age group are enrolled in education, and the average enrolment rate is 84%. However, at the lowest end of the range, there are countries where only about two-thirds of 15-19 year-olds are still in education. Information on the ages covered by compulsory education is complemented by data on the range of ages when at least 90% of the population are enrolled in education. In most OECD countries, enrolment rates exceed 90% up to the age of 17 or 18 but in ten countries the enrolment rate falls below 90% after 16, or even earlier (Table B1.).

The level at which 15-19 year-olds are enrolled reflects the different structures of national education systems. Students in this age group might be pursuing lower secondary, upper secondary, post-secondary non-tertiary or tertiary education, although the majority are enrolled in upper secondary education. Enrolment in lower secondary education is also relatively common in Australia, Denmark, Estonia and Germany, where over one-quarter of 15-19 year-olds are studying at this level. In countries where upper secondary education is normally completed around age 17-18, participation in post-secondary non-tertiary or tertiary education can be common among this age group. At least one in five 15-19 year-olds are enrolled at those levels in Belgium, France, Greece, Korea, New Zealand and the United States (Table B1.).

Data on enrolment rates across different age groups shed light on the role of VET in initial upper secondary education. These data complement information on attainment in Indicator A1 (see Box A1.1), which records the highest level of education individuals have completed, and therefore does not capture those who pursue VET but drop out, for example, or who complete it and then obtain a higher level qualification. Upper secondary enrolment among 15-19 year-olds is mostly in vocational programmes in 11 OECD countries. In these countries, VET is the main initial upper secondary education pathway. In contrast, the very small share of vocational upper secondary students in this age group in New Zealand reflect the fact that in these countries vocational education is delivered outside the initial schooling system. Students typically complete general upper secondary education and then might pursue a vocational programme at upper secondary level, as an alternative to post-secondary or tertiary education. Germany has a strong tradition of apprenticeships, and around one-third of 15-19 year-old upper secondary students pursue a vocational programme. At the same time, a considerable share of 20-24 year-olds in Germany are enrolled in vocational upper secondary (9%) or post-secondary non-tertiary (8%) programmes. The latter category includes apprenticeships for general upper secondary graduates. This shows that vocational programmes serve both teenagers and young adults (Table B1.).

Box B1.1 explores the transition from lower to upper secondary level, analysing participation patterns in education around the age when students are typically expected to start upper secondary education.

Among 20-24 year-olds, tertiary education is the most common level being pursued. On average, 31% of young adults in this age group are enrolled in a programme at bachelor’s level or above, reaching over 40% in Greece, Korea, the Netherlands and Slovenia. Most of the enrolment is in bachelor’s level programmes (one-quarter of all 20-24 year-olds on average), with only 6% enrolled in master’s level programmes (which include long first degrees). Participation in doctoral programmes is negligible (below 1%) for this age group in all countries (Table B1.).

Short-cycle tertiary programmes also play an important role in some countries in offering learning opportunities to adults, including young adults. In Canada 7% of 20-24 year-olds pursue studies at this level, often in colleges and with an occupational focus. In some countries, programmes at this level offer higher level technical skills, often to graduates of upper secondary education. In Chile 9% of those in this age group pursue two-year studies in technical training centres, in Spain the same share enrol in higher vocational programmes. The Republic of Türkiye has a particularly high short-cycle tertiary enrolment rate (16%), driven by recent reforms that have expanded open access courses at this level.

Young adults who pursue upper secondary education tend to do so in vocational programmes. Around two-thirds of upper secondary students aged 20-24 are in VET programmes (Table B1.). In some countries nearly all upper secondary students in this age group are in a vocational programme: the share is over 95% in the Czech Republic, France, Ireland, the Netherlands and the United Kingdom. Relatively high enrolment rates in upper secondary vocational programmes among 20-24 year-olds in some countries reflect the role of VET in adult education. This includes participation in second-chance programmes and other forms of adult education, such as those in Denmark, Finland, Luxembourg and the Netherlands. In Australia and New Zealand upper secondary enrolment among 20-24 year-olds is also predominantly vocational. This reflects the fact that initial schooling is predominantly general as the main programme in these countries and students will pursue further VET qualifications upon the completion of upper secondary education (see Box A1.1 in Indicator A1).

The average age of vocational students at different levels also reflects the function of programmes in different countries. For example, in Croatia, Colombia, Israel, Korea and Türkiye the average age of upper secondary VET students is 16 and in nearly half of OECD countries the average age is 18 or lower, reflecting that upper secondary programmes in these countries mostly serve teenagers. In many countries vocational upper secondary programmes serve both teenagers in initial education (Figure B1.1) and adults seeking occupational training, and the average age of upper secondary VET students is higher, between 20 and 30. For example, in Finland and Norway, 45% of 15-19 year-olds in upper secondary education are in VET, but the mean age of students is 28 in Finland and 20 in Norway. In the Netherlands around half of 15-19 year-olds in upper secondary education are in VET and the average age of upper secondary VET students is 23. In a small number of countries few teenagers are enrolled in VET, leading to a high average age of upper secondary VET students. In Australia, Ireland and New Zealand, 16% or less of 15-19 year-olds in upper secondary education study VET as their main programme and the average age of students who pursue upper secondary level VET is 30 or above (Figure B1.3).

Post-secondary non-tertiary vocational programmes are part of higher vocational education in some countries, typically serving graduates of upper secondary vocational programmes. Examples include Finland, Norway and Sweden, where programmes at this level offer advanced, specialised vocational skills to upper secondary graduates, typically those from VET. In these countries participants are adults with a mean age of 42 in Finland, 36 in Norway and 35 in Sweden (Figure B1.3). In other countries, programmes at this level serve younger adults, including recent upper secondary graduates. In Germany programmes at this level include apprenticeships in second cycle programmes serving general upper secondary graduates and vocational programmes in the health and social sectors, serving general upper secondary graduates, and the average age of students is 23.

In Ireland and New Zealand upper secondary VET students are older on average than their peers in post-secondary non-tertiary education (Figure B1.3). The reason is that post-secondary programmes do not always build on upper secondary VET, but can be an alternative learning opportunity. In Ireland, post-secondary non-tertiary programmes include apprenticeships and post leaving certificate programmes (which serve graduates of general upper secondary education). Vocational programmes at upper secondary level are occupationally focused, with some concentrating on unemployed and marginalised adults. This is also the case in New Zealand. In addition, both upper secondary and post-secondary non-tertiary vocational programmes serve adults seeking to upskill, reskill or otherwise further their education and training.

In some countries, short-cycle tertiary programmes mostly serve recent upper secondary graduates, including Canada, France, Luxembourg, Portugal and Spain. In these countries the average age of students is 25 or below. In Austria, for example, this level includes a two-year programme that is the continuation of an upper secondary vocational programme (both offered at higher technical and vocational colleges). In Canada, short-cycle tertiary programmes play a key part in offering occupational training to young people, as upper secondary education is predominantly general. In Spain, programmes at this level offer advanced vocational training to both general and vocational upper secondary graduates. Short-cycle tertiary programmes can also serve a broader adult population, however. The OECD average age for students at this level is 27 and it is 30 or more in nine OECD countries. In these countries, programmes at this level include higher VET, such as higher VET in Sweden or vocational programmes for adults in New Zealand. Note, that in some countries with a high average age, the short-cycle tertiary sector is relatively small. For example, short-cycle tertiary students represent less than 1% of VET students in Germany, Switzerland and Poland (Table B1.3.). While higher vocational and professional programmes exist in several countries at bachelor’s and even master’s level, data are not included here, as internationally agreed definitions has not yet been developed for these levels (see Box B5.2, Indicator B5).

It is important to ensure that vocational programmes, particularly those at upper secondary level, allow for progression to higher levels of education. This matters for the attractiveness of VET, as without progression opportunities bright young people will not consider VET as an option. It also matters for equity, as nobody should be locked out of further learning because of a choice made in initial schooling. It is also important for lifelong learning, as access to tertiary education can allow VET graduates to upskill or reskill during their careers. Countries have taken different approaches to structuring upper secondary education and VET, as well as associated progression opportunities.

Most upper secondary vocational students pursue a programme that leads to a qualification that allows for direct access to tertiary education (Figure B1.4). Within this broad category there are some nuances in access arrangements. In many countries VET graduates are eligible for any type of tertiary programme, subject to the same selection processes that apply to general upper secondary graduates. In some countries, however, there are distinct progression routes for VET graduates. For example access may only be possible to short-cycle tertiary programmes, which are typically viewed as part of higher VET. This is the case for example in Austria, where graduates of three year vocational programmes (in higher technical colleges) may progress to short-cycle tertiary programmes within the same institutions. Similarly, in Norway graduates of upper secondary VET have direct access to higher vocational programmes but not to universities. In some countries, VET graduates have access to some but not all bachelor’s level programmes. For example, in the Netherlands and Slovenia they have direct access to professional bachelor’s programmes, but not academic ones. Box B1.2 provides further details on progression pathways from VET in different countries.

Most countries have at least one upper secondary vocational programme that leads to full level completion without direct access to tertiary education. This category refers to programmes that meet the requirements for graduates to be considered “upper secondary graduates” but the qualification obtained does not make them eligible for any type of tertiary education. Enrolment in such programmes is relatively high in countries with multiple vocational tracks at upper secondary level, such as Hungary, the Netherlands and Slovenia. In these countries, one vocational track has stronger emphasis on general skills and preparation for higher level studies, and gives direct access to tertiary education. Another track focuses on occupational preparation and its graduates do not have direct access to tertiary education.

Some OECD countries have vocational programmes that lead to partial completion of upper secondary education or are insufficient for level completion. These categories do not mean that students do not complete their studies or only complete some study at the level. Instead, these programmes lead to a recognised qualification but are not the final programme in a sequence of programmes. The category “insufficient for level completion” refers to programmes that are too short to meet the requirements for full or partial level completion (OECD/Eurostat/UNESCO Institute for Statistics, 2015[6]). Programmes that do no lead to full level completion may play different functions, such as representing a stage within a multi-stage vocational pathway so that students typically progress to full level completion, or serving adults in search of occupational skills with limited general education content. Examples of a stage within a pathway include programmes in Denmark, the Flemish Community of Belgium and Germany. In Denmark, this category refers to the basic course in VET. It typically takes one year to complete, after which students enter the main course. In Germany programmes in this category serve lower secondary graduates who have not found an apprenticeship position with a company and pursue a year of basic vocational training, with a view to starting an apprenticeship later. In the Flemish Community of Belgium partial completion programmes include the second stage of technical or vocational secondary education which is connected to a third stage leading to full level completion. In contrast, programmes within this category in Estonia target adults and, unlike vocational programmes for youth at the same level, include limited general education and are deliberately focused on occupational skills.

When VET graduates seek to enter tertiary education, they may face some restrictions. As described above, some programmes do not yield direct access to tertiary education, while some only yield access to some types of tertiary education. There are some good arguments for limiting access of VET graduates to tertiary education – some programmes put less emphasis on general skills, so that their graduates are not well prepared to successfully pursue a tertiary programme. Some programmes may prepare students for applied tertiary programmes, but not so well for more theoretically oriented types of learning. At the same time, any restrictions need to be complemented by bridging opportunities to ensure students have effective pathways from VET to all types of higher levels of learning.

Countries have established different approaches to provide bridging pathways from restricted VET programmes, which are listed in Box B1.2. For example, although VET graduates in the Netherlands only have direct access to professional bachelor’s programmes, completing the first year of a professional bachelor’s programme yields access to the first year of studies in an academic programme at a university. In Germany and Switzerland, where VET gives access to bachelor’s programmes that are part of the professional sector (including some at master’s level in Germany), but not universities, graduates may pursue bridging programmes, but also have the option to pursue additional general education during their vocational programme to gain eligibility to universities. In Austria, Luxembourg, Norway and Spain, VET graduates have access to short-cycle tertiary education (higher vocational programmes) which would then give them access to bachelor’s level programmes. Sweden had a similar arrangement at the time of the data collection underpinning Box B1.2, until a recent reform gave VET graduates access to all types of tertiary education.

There are also bridging arrangements for programmes that do not yield direct access to tertiary education (Box B1.2). In most countries with such programmes, VET graduates have access to a bridging programme at upper secondary or post-secondary non-tertiary level. In a few countries this may involve entering another vocational programme which is not specifically designed as a bridging programme but may serve as one. For example, students in Switzerland who complete a two-year apprenticeship may transition into the second year of a three- or four-year apprenticeship, which in turn yields access to the professional sector of tertiary education.

Including an element of work-based learning in vocational programmes has multiple benefits. Workplaces are powerful environments for the acquisition of both technical and soft skills. Students can learn from experienced colleagues, using the equipment and technology that is currently used in their field. Soft skills like conflict management are easier to develop in real life contexts than in classroom settings. Delivering practical training in work environments can reduce the cost of training in schools, as equipment is often costly and becomes quickly obsolete. Similarly, including a strong element of work-based learning in VET can help tackle teacher shortages if students are learning from experienced skilled workers in companies. Finally, work-based learning creates a link between schools and the world of work, as well as between students and potential employers (OECD, 2018[7]).

Despite these compelling benefits, countries vary widely in the use of work-based learning in vocational programmes (Figure B1.5). In some countries work-based learning is extensively used, with 90% or more of students pursuing combined school- and work-based programmes. These are largely apprenticeship programmes (e.g. Denmark, Germany, Hungary and Switzerland). School-based and combined school- and work-based programmes co-exist in several countries. In some of them this reflects the existence of alternative routes to the same qualification. In France, for example, upper secondary vocational qualifications may be acquired either through apprenticeships or through a school-based route with a smaller work-based learning component (accounting for 17-20% of programme duration, depending on the programme). In some other countries, apprenticeships and school-based programmes lead to different qualifications. In Austria, for example, upper secondary vocational programmes include both apprenticeships and programmes in higher technical and vocational colleges. In many countries only a small share of vocational students are enrolled in combined school- and work-based programmes: in 12 countries, less than one in four students pursue such programmes. However, programmes that are considered school-based may include shorter forms of work-based learning, accounting for less than 25% of the programme’s duration (Box B1.3).

The data in this indicator cover formal education programmes that represent at least the equivalent of one semester (or half of a school/academic year) of full-time study and take place entirely in educational institutions or are delivered as combined school- and work-based programmes.

General education programmes are designed to develop learners’ general knowledge, skills and competencies, often to prepare them for other general or vocational education programmes at the same or a higher education level. General education does not prepare people for employment in a particular occupation, trade, or class of occupations or trades.

Vocational education and training (VET) programmes prepare participants for direct entry into specific occupations without further training. Successful completion of such programmes leads to a vocational or technical qualification that is relevant to the labour market.

Full completion (of ISCED level 3) without direct access to first tertiary programmes at ISCED level 5, 6 or 7: programmes with duration of at least 2 years at ISCED level 3 and that end after at least 11 years cumulative study since the beginning of ISCED level 1. These programmes may be terminal (i.e. not giving direct access to higher levels of education) or give direct access to ISCED level 4 only.

Full completion (of ISCED level 3) with direct access to first tertiary programmes at ISCED level 5, 6 or 7: any programmes that give direct access to first tertiary programmes at ISCED level

Partial level completion refers to programmes representing at least 2 years at ISCED level 3 and a cumulative duration of at least 11 years since the beginning of ISCED level 1, and which are part of a sequence of programmes at ISCED level 3 but are not the last programme in the sequence.

Insufficient for level completion refers to programmes that do not meet the duration requirements for partial or full level completion and therefore result in an educational attainment at the level below the level of the programme. This category includes short, terminal programmes (or a sequence of programmes) with a duration of less than 2 years at ISCED level 3 or which end after less than 11 years of cumulative duration since the beginning of ISCED level 1.

Except where otherwise noted, figures are based on head counts, because it is difficult for some countries to quantify part-time study. Net enrolment rates are calculated by dividing the number of students of a particular age group enrolled in all levels of education by the size of the population of that age group. While enrolment and population figures refer to the same period in most cases, mismatches may occur due to data availability in some countries, resulting in enrolment rates exceeding 100%.

For more information see the OECD Handbook for Internationally Comparative Education Statistics (OECD, 2018[8])and Education at a Glance 2023 Sources, Methodologies and Technical Notes (OECD, 2023[1]).

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[1]).


[4] CEDEFOP (2022), Work-Based Learning and the Green Transition, Publications Office of the European Union,

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

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

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

[7] OECD (2018), Seven Questions about Apprenticeships: Answers from International Experience, OECD Reviews of Vocational Education and Training, OECD Publishing, Paris,

[6] OECD/Eurostat/UNESCO Institute for Statistics (2015), ISCED 2011 Operational Manual: Guidelines for Classifying National Education Programmes and Related Qualifications, OECD Publishing, Paris,

[5] Perico E Santos, A. (2023), “Managing student transitions into upper secondary pathways”, OECD Education Working Papers, No. 289, OECD Publishing, Paris,

[2] Vandeweyer, M. and A. Verhagen (2020), “The changing labour market for graduates from medium-level vocational education and training”, OECD Social, Employment and Migration Working Papers, No. 244, OECD Publishing, Paris,

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