Ten things you need to know about higher education today

By Gillian Golden, Gabriele Marconi and Shizuka Kato

Analysts, OECD Directorate for Education and Skills

Higher education systems today face a number of challenges, including rising costs, persistent inequality and inconsistent quality. We shed light on these challenges in a new OECD report, Benchmarking Higher Education System Performance, which marks the first comprehensive analysis of OECD higher education systems in over a decade.

Here are ten key findings:

1. Higher education graduates now outnumber young adults who have completed only upper secondary education.

Higher education has become part of the life path of hundreds of millions of young people. In 2017, on average across OECD countries, 44% of 25-34 year-olds had obtained a higher education qualification, while 41% had completed an upper secondary or post-secondary non-tertiary programme as their highest qualification. In some countries, more than half of people in this age group now have a higher education qualification.

2. Higher education spending per student rose by 20% in OECD countries.

Between 2005 and 2015, the number of students in higher education increased by 10% across OECD countries. During the same period, higher education expenditure per student rose by 20%, resulting in an overall spending increase of over 30%. Rising spending adds financial burden on governments, which still finance two-thirds of all expenditure on higher education institutions (though in some countries, including Japan, the United Kingdom and the United States, students bear the majority of the burden)

3. Despite a doubling of attainment rates, higher education still leads to good economic and social outcomes.

While the share of adults with a higher education degree doubled between 1991 and 2017, the average employment premium of higher education graduates remained flat over this period: 10 percentage points higher than for those with an upper secondary or post-secondary non-tertiary qualification. This indicates that labour market demand for higher education graduates has, on average, kept pace with supply. Young graduates in OECD countries earn more, and are more likely to have good literacy and numeracy skills, as well. They are also more likely to volunteer, be in good health and have trust in others, compared to those with upper secondary or post-secondary non-tertiary education.

4. Completing higher education does not always guarantee higher skills.

Nearly one-third of higher education graduates in OECD countries have poor information processing skills. In countries that participated in the OECD Adult Skills Survey, about 30% of higher education graduates do not have the literacy skills necessary to carry out moderately complex information processing tasks.

5. Only 4 in 10 bachelor’s students complete their study programme on time, and 2 in 10 do not complete it at all.

The percentage of students who leave higher education without completing their study programme varies across countries, ranging from 10% to 40%. High levels of non-completion or severely delayed graduation may be the result of failures in the guidance process from compulsory to higher education, inadequate student support mechanisms and/or inflexible programme offerings.

6. Young people whose parents did not complete higher education are less likely to enter higher education themselves.

Many societies cherish the ideal that everyone has the same opportunities to fully develop their talents and participate in the modern economy. Yet access to higher education remains unequal in OECD member countries. In 2015, 18- to 24-year-olds whose parents did not complete higher education were between 40% and 60% less likely to enter a bachelor’s level programme, compared to those whose parents completed higher education. Similarly, children of foreign-born parents were between 10% and 60% less likely to enter a bachelor’s level programme.

7. The higher education sector offers lower job security to young doctorate holders than other sectors of the economy.

Postdoctoral and early career researchers in OECD countries are increasingly engaging in non-standard employment. This is particularly true among younger doctorate holders. Around a quarter of doctorate holders under the age of 45 work in higher education across OECD countries, and they are about 2.5 times less likely to be employed on a permanent basis than those working in other sectors. However, considering that the employment rate of young doctoral holders is reaching nearly 90%, indicating high labour market demand, one could also argue that those working in higher education do so by choice, and may therefore be more open to less stable employment.

8. OECD member countries are approaching gender balance among academic staff.

Women comprised 45% of academic staff in 2016, on average across OECD countries, but there are significant differences across countries. Although comparable data on the gender balance in leadership or managerial positions in academia are not available, some data suggest that women remain underrepresented in senior positions, are less likely to be corresponding authors and are less likely to receive funding from venture capital funds.

9. There is limited collaboration between business and higher education in commercial innovation.

Technological advances and innovation help to drive economic growth and create new industries. Higher education contributes to this process by training the researchers who create breakthrough innovations. Involving the private sector in higher education research helps share costs among a variety of stakeholders, and connects research more directly with the innovation process. Yet private sector financial support for higher education research and development is limited, as is the scope of innovation collaboration. Business enterprises and the private non-profit sector together contribute around 10% of higher education research and development funding, while only 15% of businesses say they co-operate with the higher education sector on developing innovative products or processes.

10. The absence of large-scale international surveys limits higher education policy analysis.

Through surveys such as PISA, TALIS and PIAAC, the OECD and other international organisations produce a wealth of comparative evidence on education systems, which contributes to the development of better policies in many countries. OECD member countries are working within their jurisdictions to survey student satisfaction, assess learning, or analyse graduate labour market outcomes; but there are currently no large-scale international surveys on higher education, which significantly constrains comparative policy analysis. Building an international evidence base remains a key challenge for OECD member countries.

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