Meet the typical student

by Ignacio Marin and Corinne Heckmann
Innovation and Measuring Progress division, Directorate for Education and Skills

With the new academic year beginning (in the Northern hemisphere at least), more than 23 million people across the OECD and G20 countries will be heading to university for the first time this year. As the latest Education Indicators in Focus brief shows, these new students will be a more diverse group than ever before – but some things don’t change.

Who are the average new entrants?

If you look at the averages, new entry students these days will be female, 22 years old, and about to embark on over four years of study in the social sciences. But these averages conceal wide variations between nations – in some countries such as Belgium, Japan and Indonesia, students still generally enter university straight from school, whereas in places like Iceland, New Zealand and Sweden the average age is over 25, with young people tending to spend time in the workforce before going on to full time study. Completion rates vary too. On average just 70% of students will graduate with a degree, with women more likely to succeed than men, but in Japan the graduation rate is over 90% while in Sweden and Hungary it’s less than half. Not that that necessarily means their education is wasted – some students drop out because they have already found a well-paying job. In Sweden and the United States, modular systems mean students can dip in and out of university and the labour market, gradually building up the credit for a degree.

Social sciences, not sciences
Social sciences, business and the law stand out as the most popular fields of study almost everywhere, except in Finland (where engineering heads the list), and Korea and Saudi Arabia where humanities are more popular. The non-social sciences lag behind, especially among women, with 39% of male students and just 14% of female ones choosing science-related fields. In Belgium and Japan the figure was just 5% for women and even in the best performing countries (Greece, Indonesia, Italy and Mexico) just 19% of female students went for the sciences. Among the men the spread was even wider: while 58% of male students in Finland chose science-related fields – including engineering, manufacturing and construction – in Argentina it was as low as 18%.

Widening access – up to a point
Access to higher education is widening everywhere, but particularly in the fast-growing G20 economies. China has now overtaken the United States in the number of university students with India taking third place. In OECD countries 60% of young people go to university – up from 39% just 15 years earlier and students are more likely than ever to go abroad for an education. But not all the barriers to tertiary education have been swept away. Coming from an educated background still makes young people almost twice as likely to enter university than the average – and in some places more than three times as likely. Much as things have changed, there’s still more to be done to give young people an equal start.

For more information
On this topic, visit: 
Education Indicators in Focus: 
On the OECD’s education indicators, visit:
Education at a Glance 2013: OECD Indicators:

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