Indicator B5. Who is expected to graduate from tertiary education?

Over the past two decades, tertiary education in OECD countries has changed significantly. The student body is more international, more women than men are graduating and choices of fields of study have evolved. These changes might reflect concerns about competitiveness in the global economy and the labour market, but also the interests and priorities of a growing student population.

The first-time graduation rate from tertiary education is an indicator of how many young people are expected to enter the labour force for the first time with a tertiary qualification before the age of 30. Based on current patterns of graduation, it is estimated that 42% of young adults will graduate from tertiary education for the first time in their life before the age of 30 on average across OECD countries. The proportion ranges from 10% in Luxembourg (although this percentage is negatively biased by the high percentage of secondary graduates who pursue tertiary studies abroad) to 73% in Australia. In 2019, the large majority of first-time tertiary graduates were awarded a bachelor’s or equivalent degree. On average across OECD countries, 76% of first-time tertiary graduates earned a bachelor’s degree, 8% earned a master’s or equivalent degree and 16% earned a short-cycle tertiary diploma. The only notable exception is Austria, where 47% of first-time graduates completed short-cycle tertiary programmes (Table B5.1).

International students (see Definitions section at the end of this indicator) can have a marked impact on graduation rates by inflating the estimate of graduate students compared to the national population. In a country with a high proportion of international graduates, such as Australia where they make up 49% of all first-time graduates, the difference can be significant. Australia’s first-time tertiary graduation rate drops from 73% to 37% when international students are excluded (Table B5.1).

On average across OECD countries, excluding international students, 38% of young adults are expected to obtain a tertiary degree before the age of 30. There is, however, a large difference between men and women. Indeed, while 46% of women are expected to obtain a tertiary degree before the age of 30, only 31% of men are expected to. In all countries with available data, first-time tertiary graduation rates for men are lower than for women, and below 50%. The size of the gender gap varies significantly across countries; more than 20 percentage points in Latvia, Lithuania and Slovenia compared to 10 percentage points or less in Germany, Hungary, the Netherlands and Swizterland (Figure B5.1).

Several reasons of this over-representation of women in the tertiary graduates cohort exist. Changes in the courses on offer in higher education, and the social value of a university education for young women may influence their choices. Young women tend also to gain more from a tertiary degree in the labour market than their male peers, both in terms of employment and earnings, which may make pursuing higher education more attractive (OECD, 2021[2])

The distribution of graduates by field of study is influenced by several factors such as the relative popularity of these fields among students, the number of study spaces offered in universities and equivalent institutions, and the degree structure of the various disciplines in each country. Marked gender differences also shape distribution patterns of graduates across fields of study.

While the field of science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) is the predominant field of study for male graduates in 34 out of 43 countries with data available, women are more likely to graduate from the field of business, administration and law (27 out of 43 countries). The second most common field of study is health and welfare for female graduates (in 12 countries), and business, administration and law for male graduates (in 9 countries). The pattern differs in some countries. In Argentina and Indonesia, the largest share of women graduate from the field of education. In India, about a third of women earn a degree in the field of social sciences, journalism and information while graduating from the field of arts and humanities is most common in Italy (Table B5.2).

Gender stereotyping of jobs and occupations along with gendered roles in personal and professional life may lead to different career expectations for girls and boys and influence the decisions that perpetuate gender-related differences in the choice of studies and careers. (OECD, 2016[3]).

Studying abroad has become a key differentiating experience for young adults enrolled in tertiary education, and international student mobility has received increasing policy attention in recent years (See Indicator B6).

In OECD countries, 9% of first-time graduates at tertiary level were international graduates in 2019. The share of international first-time graduates is equal or below 5% in ten of the OECD countries with available data and below 2% in Chile and Turkey. Conversely, the share of international students exceeds 20% in Australia, Luxembourg and New Zealand.

On average across OECD countries, women are generally as likely as men to travel abroad to earn a tertiary degree. However, there are stark differences across countries. The share of international first-time graduates at tertiary level among women is lower than that of men in 10 of the 29 OECD countries with available data. In Australia, Estonia, Latvia, New Zealand and Sweden present of the share of men international graduates is at least 5 percentage points higher than the share among women. In contrast, Luxembourg is the only country with a significant gender gap (9 percentage points) in favor of women (Figure B5.2).

The choice of fields of study among international students may be one of the factors accounting for these differences. Fields such as education and health where women are generally over-represented, tend to attract fewer international students (15% compared to 25% when considering all students). In contrast, 29% of international graduates earned a degree in STEM, fields where men are generally over-represented, compared to 24% for all students. International student mobility may help compensate for lower graduation rates in targeted fields of study among national students. In Sweden, one out of two international students graduated from a STEM field in 2019 compared to less than one third of all students (OECD, 2021[4]).

Varying opportunities for men and women to study abroad across regions may also account for differences among female and male international graduates. In 2019, women were over-represented among tertiary international graduates from North America in 25 OECD countries and in 31 countries for graduates from Europe. Regarding graduates from Asia, that is only the case for 13 OECD countries. In Australia and New Zealand, the share of men and women is relatively similar among international graduates from Asia. Thus, these two countries, where more than 80% of tertiary international graduates come from Asian countries and women are over-represented among national students, tend to have a larger share of male international graduates (Figure B5.2) (OECD, 2021[4]).

The COVID-19 pandemic has had an immediate impact on international student mobility. The extent to which higher education systems were affected varied according to the proportion of international students in the system and the origin of these students. While some countries seem to face increases in the share of foreign students, others face an important drop in the number of international students admitted. Across the 29 countries responding to the OECD/UNESCO-UIS/UNICEF/World Bank Special Survey on COVID, slightly less than half indicated adjustments to national policies related to the admission of international students in school year 2020/2021 (OECD, 2021[1]). This is expected to have an impact on the mobility status of graduates in the future.

Over the past few decades, the number of private institutions has increased to meet the growing demand for enrolment in tertiary education and students may have the possibility to choose between enrolling in public or private institutions. This choice may be influenced by financial considerations, possibilities for financial support through scholarships or grants, but also the course offering of these institutions and the higher flexibility and autonomy to design curricula and allocate resources.

The distribution of graduates by type of institution varies significantly across OECD countries, with a higher share graduating from public institutions on average. At least 80% of graduates in bachelor's, master's and master’s long first degree programmes attended a public institution in 18 OECD countries, mostly EU members. Inversely, less than half of bachelor graduates earned their degree from a public institution in seven countries, with 5 of those outside the EU.

In a few countries, the majority of tertiary students earn their degrees from a private institution, regardless of the level of education. In the United Kingdom, tertiary education is provided only by private institutions, although they are majoritarily government-dependent. In Belgium, Chile, Israel and Korea, at least 50% of students at bachelor’s, master’s and doctoral level graduated from a private institution in 2019. In Colombia and Costa Rica, that is also the case at bachelor’s and master’s level, but not at doctoral level.

In other countries, the share of graduates from public institutions varies significantly by level of education. Growing and varied demand for higher levels of tertiary education, the development of private actors in the provision of tertiary education, as well as government priorities to secure sector or industry-specific training may influence the provision of tertiary education. On average across OECD countries, 66% of graduates at bachelor level, 68% at master’s and 84% at master’s long first degrees earned their degree from a public institution. The average share across EU22 countries is higher than that of the OECD (respectively 76%, 81% and 87%), as public provision of tertiary education is generally stronger (Figure B5.3). In Brazil, Finland and Japan, although most bachelor graduates come from private institutions, public institutions play a stronger role in the provision of master’s or doctoral degrees. In Finland, while only over one third of bachelor graduates earned their degree from a public institution, 83% of master's graduates did, of which 100% of long first degrees. In Japan, 78% of bachelor's degrees are provided by private institutions, while 56% of master’s degrees and 76% of doctoral degrees are provided by public institutions (Table B5.3).

The COVID-19 crisis has led to unprecedented fiscal efforts in most countries, significant resources will be needed for the health sector, job protection and the economic recovery in the coming years and public education budgets may be under pressure. While public funding for foundational education levels (e.g., early childhood education, school education) is more likely to be safeguarded, public funding for higher education could be at greater risk. In addition, declines in public funding to subsidise attendance will be more difficult to offset with increased fees, owing to sharp reductions in household incomes. Increasing student/teacher ratios and diminished student targeted support might reduce the quality of instruction and learning in higher education, and result in higher dropout rates, particularly among disadvantaged students (OECD, 2021[1]).

First-time graduates refer to students who have graduated for the first time at a given level of education during the reference period. Therefore, if a student has graduated multiple times over the years, he or she is 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.

International students are students who left their country of origin and moved to another country for the purpose of study. In the majority of countries, international students are considered first-time graduates, regardless of their previous education in other countries. In the calculations described here, when countries could not report the number of international students, foreign students have been used as an approximation. Foreign students are students who do not have the citizenship of the country in which they studied (for more details, please refer to Annex 3, www.oecd.org/education/education-at-a-glance-19991487.htm).

Net graduation rates represent the estimated percentage of an age group who will complete a given level of education, based on current patterns of graduation.

Typical age is the age at the beginning of the last school/academic year of the corresponding educational level and programme when the degree is obtained.

Unless otherwise indicated, graduation rates are calculated as net graduation rates (i.e.as the sum of age-specific graduation rates) up to an age threshold. The net graduation rate for a single age is obtained by dividing the number of first-time graduates of that age for each type of tertiary education by the total population of the corresponding age. The sum of net graduation rates is calculated by adding the rates for each year of age until the age threshold. The result represents the expected probability of graduating for the first time from tertiary education before the age threshold if current patterns are maintained. The age threshold refers to the upper limit for completing a tertiary degree. Age 30 is used as the upper limit for completing short-cycle tertiary, bachelor’s degrees and first-time tertiary education overall. At the master’s and doctoral levels, 35 is considered to be the upper age limit for graduation.The graduation rate below typical age is calculated only if the share of graduates reported with unknown age is below the quality threshold of 10%. Graduates 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 graduation rates are used when data by age are missing and where the average age of graduation is well below the age threshold considered for the calculation of this indicator. In this case, the number of graduates of which the age is unknown is divided by the population at the typical graduation 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 6 months while that of first-time graduates may be underestimated by the same.

Graduation 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 graduates. This indicator also reports the share of first-time graduates below the age threshold, alongside the graduation 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 graduate from tertiary programmes. When international students are included in the calculation, the percentage of expected first-time graduates from tertiary programmes can change significantly.

For more information please see the OECD Handbook for Internationally Comparative Education Statistics (OECD, 2018[5]) and Annex 3 for country-specific notes (https://www.oecd.org/education/education-at-a-glance/EAG2021_Annex3_ChapterB.pdf).

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

References

[4] OECD (2021), Education at a Glance Database, https://stats.oecd.org/ (accessed on 6 July 2018).

[1] OECD (2021), The State of Higher Education – One Year into the COVID Pandemic, OECD Publishing, Paris.

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

[5] 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.

[3] OECD (2016), “Fields of education, gender and the labour market”, Education Indicators in Focus, No. 45, OECD Publishing, Paris, https://dx.doi.org/10.1787/5jlpgh1ppm30-en.

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