Indicator B4. Who is expected to enter tertiary education?

Tertiary education is the most flexible and diverse level of education today with a vast array of programmes on offer, from research-oriented degrees that prepare students for doctoral studies and academia, to professional courses that provide students with practical skills to enter the labour market more directly. Over the past decade, increasing proportions of adult populations across the OECD have attained a tertiary level of education. As a non-compulsory level of education, however, there are a variety of different pathways for those who wish to pursue further education after secondary school and students may engage in other personal or professional activities before their transition to tertiary education (Box B4.1).

The average age at entry into tertiary programmes varies depending on the level of the programme and the student profile that it is intended to attract. Students may enter tertiary education at three levels: short-cycle tertiary (ISCED level 5), bachelor’s (ISCED level 6) or master’s level in long first degree programmes (ISCED level 7 LFD). In 25 out of 34 countries, the average age at entry decreases as the level of education entered increases. On average, students start master’s LFDs at the age of 21, although the average age for bachelor’s programmes is only slightly higher at 22 years. Meanwhile, the age of new entrants to short-cycle tertiary programmes is considerably higher, averaging 26 years across the OECD (Table B4.1).

However, there are large disparities in the average age of entrants across countries. The average age of new entrants to bachelor’s programmes varies from 19 in Belgium, Japan and Korea to 25 in Denmark and Sweden. For students in master’s LFD programmes, there is a similar range in average ages from 19 in Chile, Italy, Japan, Portugal, Slovenia and Türkiye to 24 in Switzerland and 26 in Sweden. For short-cycle tertiary programmes, the differences are much wider, varying from 20 years old in France and Mexico to 34 in Ireland and 40 in Poland (Table B4.1).

The higher average age of entry to short-cycle tertiary can be explained by the fact that there are often more students entering adult education programmes at this level than at others. For example, in Denmark, 27% of students in short-cycle tertiary education are enrolled in Akademiuddannelser, an adult education programme that requires at least two years of professional experience to enter. In comparison, a much larger share of bachelor’s students in Denmark are enrolled in initial education and only 9% are enrolled in an adult education programme, the Diplomuddannelser, which also requires at least two years of relevant work experience. Meanwhile in Austria, at bachelor’s level there are only initial education programmes, whereas several short-cycle programmes are classified as adult education, such as the Berufsbildende höhere Schule für Berufstätige and the Werkmeister- und Bauhandwerkerschule.

The spread of ages of new entrants to short-cycle tertiary programmes is also considerably wider than those of new entrants to bachelor’s level or master’s LFD programmes. In short-cycle tertiary education, the average age of students at the 20th percentile was just under 22 years in 2020, compared slightly over 29 years at the 80th percentile, a spread of over 8 years. In contrast, the spread of average ages of new entrants to bachelor’s programmes was exactly 3 years, while the spread of average ages in master’s LFD programmes was slightly under that (Figure B4.2). This reflects the fact that bachelor’s and master’s LFD programmes tend to be initial education courses, which are designed to be completed before young people’s first entry to the labour market.

A myriad of factors may influence students’ future career aspirations and their choice of field of study, including their parents and other role models, careers guidance given in schools, internship experiences and the opportunities available in the labour market (Hofer, Zhivkovikj and Smyth, 2020[6]). This choice is highly important as tertiary students gain specialised skills and knowledge, which can open doors to certain career paths. However, once they have started their courses, some students may find that their interests and career objectives are better aligned with a different field of study, and therefore transfer to another field (Box B4.2).

In 2020, approximately one in four new entrants on average across the OECD and across all tertiary levels, chose to study the broad field of business, administration and law. This was the most popular field among new entrants in all OECD countries except Finland (where it was health and welfare), Israel (education), Italy (arts and humanities), and Korea and Sweden (engineering, manufacturing and construction). Some 15% of new entrants to tertiary education enrolled in engineering, manufacturing and construction programmes, and 14% in health and welfare, on average across OECD countries. Around 10% studied arts and humanities, and about the same proportion chose social sciences, journalism and information. Education; natural sciences, mathematics and statistics; ICT; and services each accounted for less than 10% of new entrants on average (Table B4.2).

In all fields, the variation across countries is considerable. In Estonia and Luxembourg, for example, about 10% of new entrants chose ICT, compared to 2% in Italy in 2020. In Israel, the share of entrants starting in the field of education was about 19%, more than twice the OECD average. In Italy, one in five tertiary students enrolled in arts and humanities, while the share was below 5% in Chile, Colombia and Mexico (Table B4.2).

Government action may influence the programmes that institutions choose to offer and the programmes in which students decide to enrol. For example, Estonia has experienced labour-market shortages in the ICT sector in recent years, as well as in specialised education, legal and healthcare professions. As part of its Lifelong Learning Strategy for 2014-2020, Estonia therefore encouraged students to enrol in some fields of study by offering government-funded scholarships for students in teacher education and waiving fees for students in ICT, teacher education and nursing, regardless of their study progress (OECD, 2019[7]). Between 2015 and 2020, the share of new entrants enrolling in education programmes in Estonia increased from 6% to 7%, while the share of new entrants to health and welfare increased from 10% to 12%. However, the proportion of new entrants enrolling in these two fields was still below the OECD average in 2020. The share of new entrants to ICT increased from 9% to 10% over the same period.

The COVID-19 crisis has led to some global shifts in the importance placed on certain fields. For example, the pandemic highlighted the overwhelming need to foster the acquisition and development of digital skills and it is likely that the ability to adapt and innovate ICT systems will only increase in importance in the next few decades. However, the field of ICT only attracts a small share of students. On average across OECD countries and across all tertiary levels, 6% of new entrants enrolled in ICT in 2020, representing only a small increase compared to the 5% of new entrants in 2015 (Table B4.2). This is somewhat surprising given that ICT is one of the fields of study offering the greatest benefits in terms of employment (see Indicator A3) and earnings (see Indicator A4). Moreover, in some contexts, the strong demand for ICT skills means that students are able to enter the labour market without fully completing their degree (Box B4.2).

The pandemic has also highlighted the need for robust health services for countries to be able to tackle any subsequent health crises, as well as manage future challenges linked to ageing populations. Policy makers therefore have an interest in ensuring that enough students are entering the relevant fields of study. Health and welfare tertiary graduates enjoy high employment rates, although they vary substantially across countries, from 77% in Mexico to 95% in Iceland (See Indicator A3). In 19 of the 32 countries with available data the share of new entrants to the fields of health and welfare increased between 2015 and 2020. The greatest change was observed in Türkiye, where there was a 9 percentage point increase. At the other end of the scale, the share of new entrants in health and welfare fell in Colombia by 1 percentage point, meaning that only 5% of new entrants enrolled in this field in 2020, the lowest share across OECD countries. Over the same period, the share of new entrants into the field of health and welfare decreased by 3% in Luxembourg (from 13% in 2015 to 10% in 2020) whereas in Belgium, the share decreased by 2 percentage points over this period, but already made up one-quarter (25%) of new entrants in 2015 (Figure B4.4).

The fields of study aggregated under health and welfare include a wide range of programmes: dental studies, medicine, nursing and midwifery, medical diagnostic and treatment technology, therapy and rehabilitation, pharmacy, etc. Some of these programmes, such as dental studies and medicine, require extensive studies and are exclusively offered through master’s long first degrees, while others, such as nursing or welfare, are more variable in length. Variations in the overall share of new entrants in health and welfare programmes might not be enough to observe differences between specific programmes across countries. For example, Latvia and Switzerland recorded 3 and 2 percentage point increases respectively in the share of health and welfare new entrants between 2015 and 2020 (Table B4.2). However, the share of new entrants enrolling in medicine increased by 2 percentage points in Latvia compared to just 1 percentage point in Switzerland. Meanwhile, the share of new entrants enrolling in nursing and midwifery stayed the same in Latvia, but increased in Switzerland by 1 percentage point (see Education at a Glance Database).

Entry patterns by field of study reveal a strong gender bias. Although the share of women among new entrants to tertiary education has now overtaken that of men, on average across OECD countries, women are still under-represented in STEM fields and over-represented in health and welfare and education across all tertiary levels. However, these gender differences vary across educational levels and there is greater gender equality among new entrants into higher levels of education (Figure B4.1).

On average across OECD countries in 2020, 21% of new entrants to STEM short-cycle tertiary programmes were women, rising to 31% at bachelor’s level. Master’s and doctoral STEM programmes are slightly closer to gender parity across OECD countries, with women averaging 36% of new entrants at master’s level and 38% at doctoral level. Within these overall figures, the share of women ranges from 17% in Japan to 44% in Estonia, Israel, New Zealand and Portugal and 47% in Türkiye at doctoral level, and from 16% in Japan to 44% in Greece and Iceland and 46% in Poland at master’s level (Table B4.3).

At the other end of the spectrum, women outnumber men in other fields of study such as health and welfare, although this imbalance also tends to decrease with each additional educational level: women represent 79% of new entrants to health and welfare programmes in short-cycle tertiary and bachelor’s level, compared to 72% at master's level and 63% at doctoral level on average across OECD countries (Table B4.3).

A similar pattern of female over-representation is found in the healthcare workforce, where women make up 70% of all health and care staff, putting them at the forefront of the COVID-19 pandemic. Their contribution during the COVID-19 pandemic as essential workers was particularly important, exposing them to a severe risk of infection, while they were under-represented in leadership and decision making processes in the healthcare sector (OECD, 2020[8]). Pre-existing shortages of nurses were exacerbated during the COVID-19 pandemic, because many nurses themselves became infected by the virus (OECD/European Union, 2020[9]).

In 2020, women were also still largely over-represented among new entrants in the field of education, where they represented 78% of new entrants on average across OECD countries. The share of women ranges from 61% in Colombia and 62% in Türkiye to 90% in Latvia and 93% in Italy (see Education at a Glance Database).

A doctorate is the highest degree awarded in academia. Doctoral studies play an important role in developing future innovation by training the researchers needed to advance knowledge and explore new research areas relevant for the economy and society of tomorrow. Given the high level of investment in terms of personal and financial resources and the pivotal role of doctorate holders in pushing back the frontiers of knowledge, there has been growing policy interest in attracting talented young people into careers in research, ensuring equitable access to doctoral programmes for both men and women, and providing rewarding employment opportunities to its graduates (OECD, 2019[7]).

Doctorate holders account for a small proportion of the adult population. In 2021, just 1.3% of 25-64 year-olds held a doctorate or equivalent qualification on average across OECD countries, though this varied from 0.1% or less in Costa Rica, Indonesia and Mexico to more than 3% in India, Slovenia and Switzerland (See Indicator A1). In addition to these low levels, the number of new entrants to doctoral level studies has been decreasing in the past few years. Between 2013 and 2020, the number of new entrants to this level decreased by approximately 4% across OECD countries with available data for both years, reaching less than 330,000 students in 2020. This trend is primarily driven by substantial decreases in the number of new entrants in Poland (-77%) and the Slovak Republic (-26%) since 2013 (see Education at a Glance Database).

Admission to doctoral studies is generally on the basis of a master’s degree or an equivalent qualification in most countries. However, in some countries, such as Australia, Colombia and the United States, students may enter a doctoral programme following the completion of a bachelor’s programme, although in Australia an honours component is additionally required (Class I or IIA) (OECD, 2019[7]). The median age at entry to doctoral programmes is 29 on average across OECD countries with at least 60% of entrants between the ages of 26 and 37 (Table B4.4).

The age distribution of new entrants to doctoral programmes provides insights into the diversity of entrants, in terms of age. In some countries, the age distribution is closely centred on the median, implying relatively small age differences among doctoral students. This is the case in Luxembourg, where 4 years separate the 80th and 20th percentile age groups. In other countries, the age distribution is much wider. For example in Greece, Korea and Portugal, new entrants in the 80th percentile are 18 years older than those in the 20th percentile. However in all OECD countries, the median age is closer to the 20th percentile, indicating the age distribution skews more towards the younger than the older age group (Table B4.4).

Students entering a doctoral programme are expected to contribute to and expand the knowledge base in their selected field of study. In contrast to lower levels of tertiary education, doctoral candidates tend to specialise more heavily in the science and technology-related fields of study. The field of natural sciences, mathematics and statistics attracts the largest share of doctoral graduates, 20% on average across OECD countries, followed by engineering, manufacturing and construction, and health and welfare, both at 17%. In contrast, business, administration and law, which accounted for the largest share of entrants at bachelor’s level, represents less than 10% at doctoral level (Figure B4.6). Some of these differences may be explained by the availability of funding that can be accessed in different fields of education. For example, in the United States, doctoral students in STEM programmes are more likely to be able to rely primarily on funding from their institutions to support themselves through their studies than students in social sciences programmes, who are considerably more likely to rely on loans (Zeiser and Kirshstein, 2014[12]).

There are marked differences among countries in the distribution of the fields studied by doctoral new entrants. Although the largest share of doctoral students tend to enter natural sciences, mathematics and statistics across OECD countries, this varies from 10% in Mexico to 34% in Chile. Health and welfare accounts for more than 30% of new entrants at doctoral level in Denmark, Japan and Sweden. In Canada and Iceland, 20% of doctoral students entered into the broad field of social science, journalism and information, and the share of doctoral new entrants from this field exceeds 15% only in Hungary, Latvia and Portugal. Finally, 25% of doctoral students entered the field of ICT in Luxembourg, compared to an OECD average of 5% (Table B4.4).

On average across OECD countries, women represented 49% of doctoral new entrants in 2020. Gender parity (where women represent between 48-52% of all first-time entrants) is observed in almost half of OECD countries. In 10 OECD countries, there is a higher share of male first-time entrants, while there is a higher share of female first-time entrants in the remaining 9 (Table B4.4).

Doctoral level is the only level of education where women represent less than 50% of entrants on average across the OECD. One of the reasons for the higher share of men is the predominance of STEM-related fields of study at doctoral level. In four out of the ten countries where men outnumber women among new entrants, at least 50% of doctoral students entered a STEM-related field (Chile, France, Italy and Luxembourg) (Table B4.4). The lower participation of women in STEM-related fields has prompted countries to initiate policy action to promote women in STEM and in research more generally. These actions vary from financial incentives and public awareness campaigns to prizes and awards for women in STEM, in order to encourage higher participation of women in science-related fields at different ages. For instance, Korea launched a plan in 2019 to raise the number of qualified female scientists and engineers. Australia, Germany and the United Kingdom, among other OECD countries, also have programmes to fund women’s participation in STEM and research (García and Serve, 2022[13]).

Attracting the best doctoral students from around the world enables countries to build a leading role in research and innovation, and some countries have implemented policies to nurture an attractive research environment for potential students. Some countries, such as Australia and Italy, charge lower fees for doctoral programmes than at lower levels of education (see Indicator C5). However, the status of doctoral candidates varies across countries: whereas some countries recognise them as full employees within their respective tertiary institutions and remunerate them in line with junior academic staff, others consider them as students who are not regular employees of the institution. When employed, doctoral candidates may have different status and responsibilities across countries (see Box D8.2 in Indicator D8).

Doctoral students are more likely than other tertiary students to study abroad. On average across OECD countries, 30% of new entrants at doctoral level are international or foreign students, compared to 21% at master’s level and 10% at bachelor’s (Table B4.1). In some countries, international students make up the majority of new entrants at doctoral level: half or more are international students in Luxembourg, the Netherlands, New Zealand and Switzerland (Table B4.4).

Adult education is specifically targeted at individuals who are regarded as adults by their society to improve their technical or professional qualifications, further develop their abilities, enrich their knowledge with the purpose to complete a level of formal education, or to acquire, refresh or update their knowledge, skills and competencies in a particular field. This also includes what may be referred to as ‘continuing education’, ‘recurrent education’ or ‘second-chance education’.

Initial education is the education of individuals before their first entrance to the labour market, i.e. when they will normally be in full-time education. It thus targets individuals who are regarded as children, youth and young adults by their society. It typically takes place in educational institutions in a system designed as a continuous educational pathway.

Internationally mobile students or international students are those students who left their country of origin and moved to another country for the purpose of study.

Master's long first degree (LFD) is a five- to seven-year master’s programme (ISCED 7-LFD) that prepares for a first degree or qualification that is equivalent to master’s level programme in terms of their complexity of content. This includes highly specialised fields such as medicine, dentistry or, in some cases, law and engineering.

New entrants to a tertiary level of education are students enrolling for the first time in a tertiary level of education but who may have previously entered and completed a degree in another tertiary 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 six months, while that of first-time graduates may be underestimated by the same.

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 enter tertiary programmes. When international students are included in the calculation, the percentage of expected first-time entrants into tertiary programmes can change significantly.

The field of education is determined by the main subject matter of a student’s programme of study. For practical purposes, the main subject of a programme or qualification is determined by the detailed field in which the majority (i.e.more than 50%) or a clearly predominant part of the learning credits or students’ intended learning time is spent. Learning credits, where available, should be used. Otherwise, an approximate assessment of the intended learning time should be made. Learning time includes time spent in lectures and seminars, as well as in laboratories or on special projects. Private study time is excluded (as it is difficult to measure and varies between students). Programmes and qualifications are classified in the detailed field containing their main subject (UNESCO Institute for Statistics, 2014[14]).

For more information, please see the OECD Handbook for Internationally Comparative Education Statistics 2018 (OECD, 2018[15]) and Annex 3 for country-specific notes (https://www.oecd.org/education/education-at-a-glance/EAG2022_X3-B.pdf).

Data refer to the 2019/20 academic year and are based on the UNESCO-UIS/OECD/Eurostat data collection on education statistics administered by the OECD in 2021. Data for some countries may have a different reference year. For details, see Annex 3 at https://www.oecd.org/education/education-at-a-glance/EAG2022_X3-B.pdf.

References

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[13] García, L. and B. Serve (2022), Ending women’s under-representation in science, technology, and innovation activities, OECD Directorate for Science, Technology and Innovation website, https://stiplab.github.io/datastories/gender/policy_note.html (accessed on 17 May 2022).

[6] Hofer, A., A. Zhivkovikj and R. Smyth (2020), “The role of labour market information in guiding educational and occupational choices”, OECD Education Working Papers, No. 229, OECD Publishing, Paris, https://doi.org/10.1787/59bbac06-en.

[8] OECD (2020), “Women at the core of the fight against COVID-19 crisis”, Tackling Coronavirus (COVID-19): Contributing to a Global Effort, OECD, https://www.oecd.org/coronavirus/policy-responses/women-at-the-core-of-the-fight-against-covid-19-crisis-553a8269/.

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[15] OECD (2018), OECD Handbook for Internationally Comparative Education Statistics 2018: Concepts, Standards, Definitions and Classifications, OECD Publishing, Paris, https://doi.org/10.1787/9789264304444-en.

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[14] UNESCO Institute for Statistics (2014), ISCED Fields of Education and Training 2013 (ISCED-F 2013), UNESCO Institute for Statistics, Montreal, https://doi.org/10.15220/978-92-9189-150-4-en.

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[12] Zeiser, K. and R. Kirshstein (2014), “Who pays for the doctorate? A tale of two PhDs”, Broadening Participation in STEM Issue Brief, American Institutes for Research, https://www.air.org/sites/default/files/downloads/report/STEM%20Graduate%20Funding%20Brief%20%20Sept%202014.pdf.

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