Indicator B3. Who is expected to graduate from upper secondary education?

An upper secondary qualification is often considered to be the minimum credential for successful entry into the labour market and necessary for continuing to further education. Young people who leave school before completing upper secondary education tend to face challenges in the labour market, including worse employment prospects (see Indicator A4). At upper secondary level, students face decisions on their programme orientation and field of study. However, men and women make very different choices, which influences their options for higher education and their expected labour-market outcomes. The socio-economic background of students may also influence their choice of upper secondary programme as well as the completion of this level (Box B3.1). Understanding these choices and their implications is central to ensuring inclusive educational opportunities and defining policies that address inequalities.

Vocational pathways are an important part of upper secondary education in many OECD countries, and allow students to gain practical experience in their chosen career path. In 2019, on average across OECD countries, 38% of upper secondary graduates obtained a vocational qualification, ranging from 6% in Canada to 76% in Austria.

Traditionally, men have had higher incentives to graduate from upper secondary vocational programmes than women (Education at a glance Database). On average across OECD countries, in 2019, women made up 55% of upper secondary graduates in general programmes, compared to 45% in vocational programmes (Figure B3.1). This has strong implications on men’s opportunities to pursue higher education. Indeed, two-thirds of students enrolled in upper secondary vocational education are receiving an education that theoretically provides them with the opportunity to directly enter tertiary education, against more than 90% of students in general upper secondary education (Indicator B7; OECD (2020[2]).

In almost all countries with available data, women make up at least half of upper secondary graduates from general programmes, ranging from 49% in Korea to 61% in Slovenia and 62% in Italy. In contrast, women are under-represented in vocational programmes in more than three-quarters of the countries with available data. There is, however, significant cross-country variation in upper secondary vocational programmes, where the share of women ranges from less than 34% in Estonia, Hungary and Iceland to more than 60% in Ireland. In fact, Ireland is one of just five countries where women make up a higher share of graduates in vocational programmes than in general programmes. In the other four countries, Brazil, Colombia, New Zealand and the United Kingdom, the difference between the share of women in vocational and general programmes is much smaller (less than 5 percentage points).

Young people’s choice of field of study when pursuing vocational education is still highly influential on career choices and employment outcomes. However, differences are commonly observed between the fields chosen by men and women. This may be due to natural inclination and preferences as well as social perceptions of what women and men excel at and the careers they can pursue.

The largest share, about a third of students in upper secondary vocational education, graduated from engineering, manufacturing and construction programmes in 2019, followed by business, administration and law (17%); services (17%); and health and welfare (12%). However, this pattern does not hold for every country. In Brazil, Luxembourg and Switzerland, most upper secondary vocational graduates obtained a qualification in business, administration and law. In Ireland, the Netherlands and Spain, the most popular field was health and welfare, and in Italy and Portugal, it was services (Table B3.1).

There are stark gender differences in the fields of study that upper secondary vocational students choose. Women are far more likely than men to study subjects relating to business, administration and law as well as health and welfare. Men, for their part, are more likely to choose engineering as well as information, communication and technology, which are in great demand in the labour market in OECD countries. These differences can be attributed to traditional perceptions of gender roles and identities as well as the cultural values sometimes associated with particular fields of education. Some studies have shown that these gender differences in the choice of field of study are mirrored in the career expectations of 15-year-olds: on average across OECD countries, only 14% of the girls who were top performers in science or mathematics reported that they expect to work in science or engineering, compared with 26% of the top-performing boys. However, in Estonia, Finland, Poland and Slovenia, top-performing boys and girls were equally likely to report that they expect to work in those fields (OECD, 2018[3]).

Few women in upper secondary vocational education pursue a programme in engineering, manufacturing and construction: only 10% of graduates did so in 2019. Costa Rica is the only country where the gender gap is in favour of women: 34% of women graduate from upper secondary vocational programmes in engineering, manufacturing and construction, against 23% of men (Figure B3.2). In contrast, female graduates are over-represented in health and welfare (83%); business, administration and law (63%); and services (58%) (Table B3.1).

In the COVID-19 context, most of the health-care workforce in the frontline were women (Gabster et al., 2020[4]). The resource issue in the health sector and the shortages of nurses across most OECD economies has imposed an extra burden for women. Ensuring that more men enter into the health and welfare sector could probably help resolve this and tackle a silent gender gap.

Various kinds of post-secondary non-tertiary programmes (ISCED level 4) are offered in OECD countries. These programmes straddle upper secondary and post-secondary education and may be considered either upper secondary or post-secondary programmes, depending on the country. Although the content of these programmes may not be significantly more advanced than upper secondary programmes, they broaden the knowledge of individuals who have already attained an upper secondary qualification. Mainly vocationally oriented, post-secondary non-tertiary programmes are relatively less prominent in the educational landscape compared to other levels of education. About 1% of 15-19 year-olds enrolled in post-secondary non-tertiary education in 2019 (Education at a Glance Database); eight OECD countries do not offer this level of education: Chile, Costa Rica, Korea, Mexico, the Netherlands, Slovenia, Turkey and the United Kingdom (Table B3.3).

On average across OECD countries, around 95% of post-secondary non-tertiary first-time graduates have graduated from vocational programmes (Table B3.2). Professionalisation is particularly high at this level of education, as post-secondary non-tertiary programmes are most often designed for direct entry into the labour market. There are some national initiatives to provide general programmes at post-secondary non-tertiary level to target students who have completed a vocational upper secondary level and want to increase their chances of entering tertiary education. For instance, in Switzerland, a one-year general programme, the University aptitude test, prepares graduates from vocational upper secondary education to enter general programmes at the tertiary level (OECD/Eurostat/UNESCO, 2015[5]).

On average across OECD countries, 23% of post-secondary non-tertiary graduates in vocational programmes specialised in health and welfare; 21% in engineering, manufacturing and construction; and 18% in both business, administration and law and services. However, this pattern is not always repeated across countries. In Luxembourg, for instance, 62% of post-secondary non-tertiary graduates obtained a qualification in engineering, manufacturing and construction whereas in Austria the share is only 1% (Table B3.2).

On average across OECD countries, women make up 54% of post-secondary non-tertiary vocational graduates, but there are significant variations across countries, ranging from 23% in Luxembourg to 76% in Poland. This counterbalances with the under-representation of women in upper secondary vocational education. There are two main reasons women are over-represented in post-secondary non-tertiary education but not in upper secondary education. First, women have a higher completion rate for upper secondary vocational education than men and are therefore more likely to continue their studies in post-secondary education. Second, women are more strongly represented in certain broad fields of study such as health and social welfare, and business, administration and law – fields which are very prevalent in short-cycle tertiary vocational education at tertiary level, but especially in post-secondary non-tertiary education (OECD, 2020[2]).

In almost all countries with available data, women make up more than half of post-secondary non-tertiary graduates from vocational programmes, except in Belgium, the Czech Republic, Denmark, Iceland, Ireland, Luxembourg, New Zealand, Portugal and the Russian Federation. The percentage of women pursuing a programme in engineering, manufacturing and construction is low at the post-secondary non-tertiary level: they make up only 17% of graduates in this field. In contrast, women are over-represented in health and welfare, where the share of female graduates is 70% or more in all countries with available data, except Denmark (25%) and Estonia (68%). There is more gender balance in the field of services, where on average 60% of graduates are women, and business, administration and law, where the figure is 64% (Table B3.2).

Upper secondary education is often considered to be the minimum credential for successful entry into the labour market and necessary for continuing to further education. The costs of not completing this level of education on time can be considerable to both individuals and society, as those that do not attain it are more likely to be neither employed nor in education or training (NEET – see indicator A2). Graduation rates offer an indication of whether government initiatives have been successful in increasing the share of people who graduate from upper secondary education. The large differences in graduation rates among countries reflect the variety of systems and programmes available, as well as other country-specific factors, such as current social norms and economic performance.

It is estimated that 80% of adults will graduate from upper secondary for the first time before age 25 if current graduation patterns continue on average across OECD countries. There are, however, large variations across countries. In Greece, Korea and Slovenia, more than 90% of adults are expected to graduate from upper secondary education for the first time before 25 compared to less than 60% in Costa Rica (Table B3.3).

Generally, graduation from upper secondary education remained stable on average across OECD countries between 2013 and 2019, increasing by 1 percentage point over the period. However, some countries witnessed an exceptional expansion of upper secondary graduation over this period. In Mexico and Turkey, the share of adults expected to graduate from upper secondary education for the first time before age 25 rose by at least 15 percentage points between 2013 and 2019. In contrast, the share of adults expected to graduate for the first time from upper secondary education before the age of 25 fell by at least 8 percentage points in Portugal and Sweden over the same period. In some countries, the expansion in upper secondary graduation remained marginal between 2013 and 2019, following earlier policies to expand access to upper secondary education. More than 90% of adults were already expected to graduate from upper secondary education before they turned 25 in Greece and Israel by 2005 and graduation levels have remained similar since (Table B3.3).

First-time graduation rates from post-secondary non-tertiary education are low compared to those from upper secondary programmes. On average, it is estimated that 6% of today’s young adults in OECD countries will complete post-secondary non-tertiary programmes before they turn 30 if current graduation patterns continue. The only countries where first-time graduation rates from post-secondary non-tertiary programmes exceeded 20% are Germany and New Zealand. For OECD countries with available data for 2005, 2013 and 2019, the first-time graduation rate of adults below the age of 30 has remained constant over the past decade (around 7% on average).

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 graduation rate represents the expected probability of graduating for the first time at a given level of education before the age threshold (25 for upper secondary education and 30 for post-secondary non-tertiary education) if current patterns are maintained.

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 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 upper secondary education before the age threshold if current patterns are maintained. The age threshold refers to the upper limit for completing either an upper secondary or post-secondary non-tertiary degree. Age 25 is used as the upper limit for completing upper secondary education. At the post-secondary non-tertiary level, 30 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 six 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. 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.

For more information, please see the OECD Handbook for Internationally Comparative Education Statistics (OECD, 2017[9]).

Data refer to the academic year 2018/19 and are based on the OECD/UIS/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

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[2] OECD (2020), Education at a Glance 2020: OECD Indicators, OECD Publishing, Paris, https://doi.org/10.1787/19991487.

[8] OECD (2019), Education at a Glance 2019: OECD Indicators, OECD Publishing, Paris, https://doi.org/10.1787/f8d7880d-en.

[3] OECD (2018), PISA 2018 Results (Volume II): Where All Students Can Succeed, OECD Publishing, Paris, https://doi.org/10.1787/b5fd1b8f-en.

[9] OECD (2017), OECD Handbook for Internationally Comparative Education Statistics: Concepts, Standards, Definitions and Classifications, OECD Publishing, Paris, https://doi.org/10.1787/9789264279889-en.

[5] OECD/Eurostat/UNESCO (2015), ISCED 2011 Operational Manual: Guidelines for Classifying National Education Programmes and Related Qualifications, OECD Publishing, Paris, https://dx.doi.org/10.1787/9789264228368-en.

[7] Thomson, S. (2018), “Achievement at school and socioeconomic background: An educational perspective”, npj Science of Learning, Vol. 3/5, https://doi.org/10.1038/s41539-018-0022-0.

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