by Dirk Van Damme
Head of the Innovation and Measuring Progress division, Directorate for Education and Skills
|Average annual growth rates in below upper secondary and tertiary education 2013|
When societies move forward, not everyone benefits in the same way or to the same extent. Some social groups change faster than others, while other groups risk falling behind. Change in education is no exception. In understanding social change it is critically important not only to look at the average change, but also to look at how change affects the entire population.
The rapid expansion of education opportunities in OECD countries over the past decades was most visible at the top of the distribution, that is, in the growing share of tertiary-educated adults. But education opportunities also opened up at the bottom of the distribution and, as a result, the number of low-educated people decreased. In other words, the entire distribution of educational attainment moved upwards.
However, the speed of change can be different at the two ends of the attainment distribution. If the change at the top exceeds that at the bottom, then inequality in educational attainment increases. When people are left behind as access to education expands, social cohesion is threatened. There is ample evidence that educational exclusion comes with huge risks to health, employment, income, and even such intangible outcomes such as interpersonal trust, tolerance and adherence to democratic values. A lack of education opportunities also seems to be one of the main channels through which poverty and social inequality are transmitted from one generation to another.
By contrast, a process of inclusive growth, with equivalent growth at both ends of the spectrum, or when the bottom end improves even faster, seems to be a good thing in itself. When societies become highly educated, education and skills become the main route towards many other opportunities in life.
The new Education Indicators in Focus analyses the growth of educational attainment at both ends of the distribution between 2000 and 2013 in OECD countries. The share of tertiary-educated adults grew by 3.1% per year on average, while the share of people without an upper secondary education decreased by 2.9% per year on average. So, on average across OECD countries, the educational attainment distribution widened slightly.
But, as is clear in the chart above, the differences among countries are huge. The chart shows the average annual growth rates at both ends of the distribution and compares the extent of both. At the left are Sweden, Finland, Israel and Canada, where the average annual rate of reduction in the share of people without an upper secondary education was more than 2 percentage points greater than the average annual rate of increase in the share of tertiary-educated adults. Over this period, these countries prioritised reducing the number of low-educated individuals over increasing the number of high-educated individuals, partly because they had already expanded the top end of the distribution. In these countries, the breadth of the distribution of educational attainment narrowed.
At the other end of the distribution are Portugal, Turkey, Italy and Switzerland, where the average annual rate of increase in tertiary attainment was more than 2 percentage points greater than the average annual reduction in the share of people without an upper secondary education. In these countries, the distribution of educational attainment widened. Denmark is a special case because it is the only country in which the share of people without an upper secondary education increased between 2000 and 2013. Still, with increases at both ends of the spectrum, the distribution widened in Denmark too.
The total length of the two bars provides an indication of the overall growth in educational attainment. The greatest change took place in the Czech Republic, Luxembourg, Poland and the Slovak Republic, closely followed by Ireland and Korea. In contrast, the overall change was smallest in Mexico, New Zealand and the United States. But the size of overall change is unrelated to differences in the annual rate of growth at each end of the spectrum. This suggests that it is not the speed of change that determines whether the expansion of educational attainment is more or less inclusive. Rather, it is the policy environment around educational change that determines whether individuals at the bottom of the distribution also see their education opportunities improve.
Countries that are in the process of becoming higher-educated societies, where education qualifications and skills determine income, well-being and many other life chances, should invest in improving opportunities across the population, not only among the most educated. With the right inclusive education policies in place, no part of the population risks being left behind and out of reach of the social and economic benefits that accrue to more educated people.
Education Indicators in Focus, issue No. 32, by Dirk Van Damme
Education Indicators in Focus, issue No. 32, French version
On this topic, visit:
Education Indicators in Focus: www.oecd.org/education/indicators
On the OECD’s education indicators, visit:
Education at a Glance 2014: OECD Indicators: www.oecd.org/edu/eag.htm