How many young people leave school without any qualification?

by Dirk Van Damme
Head of the Innovation and Measuring Progress division, Directorate for Education and Skills

More education yields better job prospects and higher average levels of income, and is also associated with better (self-reported) health, social capital and political engagement. Year after year Education at a Glance provides the evidence that links educational attainment to these various economic and social outcomes. The economic crisis has underlined the relevance of such findings. The social cost of the crisis, in terms of unemployment and poverty, has been particularly high for those who lacked the risk insurance that education seems to guarantee for the highly educated.

The latest unemployment data from the OECD (November 2014) show that unemployment rates remain virtually unchanged at very high levels and that there is little prospect for real improvement. The recently published Education at a Glance Interim Report , which includes 2013 data, shows that the relative risk of unemployment among low-educated adults continues to be very high. On average across OECD countries, 13.7% of those without an upper secondary qualification were unemployed, compared to 5.3% for tertiary-educated individuals and 8% among those with upper secondary or post-secondary non-tertiary education.

Countries have every good reason to lift as many young people as possible out of the trap of having to enter the labour market and adulthood without a good qualification. Indeed, many countries have identified the problem of early, unqualified school leavers as a major educational challenge. One just has to glance at the chart above to understand how big the problem is. On average across OECD countries with available data, 16.8% of 25-34 year-olds have to start life without a minimum level qualification. At least one in six young people in 13 OECD countries – including Denmark, France, Italy, the Netherlands, New Zealand and Norway – lacks qualifications. This is a major risk for these labour markets and societies.

Many countries have expanded their tertiary education systems and have seen the share of tertiary-educated individuals in the 25-34 year-old cohort grow year after year – but the share of low-educated youth does not diminish at an equivalent rate. Between 2005 and 2013, the average annual growth rate in the share of tertiary-educated youth was almost twice as high as the rate of decline in the share of young people who did not have an upper secondary qualification: .94 percentage points compared to .50 percentage points. This also means that the relative share of mid-educated 25-34 year-olds has decreased as well, by .46 percentage points per year, on average.

Some countries have both a large share of highly educated youth and a large share of low-educated youth. In Spain, for example, 41.1% of 25-34 year-olds are tertiary educated and 34.9% of individuals that age do not have an upper secondary qualification. Austria, the Czech Republic, the Slovak Republic and Slovenia have the opposite profile, with small proportions of low-educated youth, a large share of young people with an upper secondary qualification, and a comparatively small proportion of tertiary-educated youth.

Sure, there is progress: the group of young people without any qualification grows smaller year after year; but progress is slow and unevenly distributed among countries. In Greece, Luxembourg, Portugal, Turkey and the United Kingdom, the share of young people without any qualification decreased by an average of more than 1.2 percentage points between 2005 and 2013. But in Denmark, Estonia, Norway and Switzerland, the share of young people in the workforce who had no qualification increased during the same period.

The message is clear: if countries want to achieve sustainable and inclusive economic growth and social progress, they should not only expand their tertiary education systems, they should also work to reduce the share of low-educated youth. Leaving a large share of young adults behind without any educational protection against the risks of unemployment, insecure jobs and social exclusion might, in the end, eat into most of the growth dividend acquired through higher educational attainment. Progress has to be achieved across the educational spectrum.

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Chart Source: OECD (2015), Education at a Glance Interim Report: Update of Employment and Educational Attainment Indicators, Table 1.4, available for consultation on line only

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