The scope of contemporary higher education is broad, and concerns about the performance of higher education systems are widespread. The number of young people with a higher education qualification is expected to surpass 300 million in OECD and G20 countries by 2030. Higher education systems are faced with many challenges, which include expanding access, containing costs, and ensuring the quality and relevance of provision.

During 2017-2018, the OECD Higher Education Policy team carried out a benchmarking review of higher education systems. The review involved the compilation and analysis of statistical data related to higher education (ISCED levels 5-8) for all OECD countries, as well as a review of indicators, policies and practices for four jurisdictions that elected to participate in a deeper benchmarking exercise: Estonia, the Flemish Community of Belgium, the Netherlands and Norway. The evidence compiled for the review spanned the inputs, activities, outputs and outcomes of higher education systems, with a view to assessing their relative performance.

The analysis in this synthesis report for the project provides a comprehensive and empirically rich review of the higher education landscape across OECD countries, taking stock of how well systems are performing in meeting their education, research and engagement responsibilities. This report represents the first extensive examination of higher education systems undertaken by the OECD in more than a decade, and is timely given the continuing shifts in the higher education landscape in recent years. It presents an analysis of the state of higher education across the OECD today; the wider context in which it operates; how it is resourced; outputs and outcomes of education and research activities; and the range of actions higher education institutions are increasingly taking to improve engagement with the wider world and their relevance to society.

This review also finds that the necessary evidence base to guide higher education policy is trailing behind the quickly moving developments in higher education systems. While higher education is by far the most internationalised level of education, with systems competing globally for students and researchers, there are almost no international comparisons available of how teaching, learning and research are organised within the “black box” of higher education institutions.

Furthermore, higher education grows more costly every year. Yet, despite continuously increasing public and private expenditure, the body of available evidence required to measure the value achieved for this investment is less developed compared to other levels of education. Tackling core data gaps on the quality of education services provided and the impact of higher education on students’ development of skills and knowledge is essential to demonstrate the value provided by higher education systems and illuminate the areas in which performance needs to be improved.

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