Six key takeaways on equity from Education at a Glance 2021

University students standing in a classroom with face masks on, talking with each other

By Marie-Helene Doumet

Senior Analyst, OECD Directorate for Education and Skills

Key points:

– Internationally comparable education statistics are as critical as ever during the COVID crisis.
– Our new Education at a Glance 2021 report contains the latest data from education systems around the world.
– This year’s edition has a specific focus on equity in education.

The COVID-19 pandemic has shown that scars from unresolved societal challenges may run deeper than many may have anticipated.  Inequality. Economic polarisation. The loss of a sense of common good. Broken expectations for a fair future.  A contributor to this growing unrest is the persistent belief that the cards we were dealt at birth determine our future.  Too few adults beat the odds their personal characteristics have fated them to: those from a disadvantaged background are less likely to participate in education, perform well, find suitable employment and pursue lifelong learning. As a result, they are less likely to develop the skills needed to succeed in our changing economy. And they are at a higher risk of transmitting this disadvantage to the next generation.

As education policy makers continue to work around the clock to minimise disruptions to education, particularly towards the most disadvantaged, internationally comparable education statistics are as critical as ever. The 2021 edition of Education at a Glance, released today in a new and interactive version, provides a comprehensive overview of education systems in OECD member and partner countries, including detailed indicators across all levels of education – with a specific focus on equity in education. A supplemental COVID-19 spotlight released jointly with the publication explores the educational response 18 months into the pandemic, analysing the measures implemented to ensure educational continuity and equitable learning despite the crisis.

Here are six key takeaways:

One in five adults still does not have basic education

In 2020, 20% of adults and 15% of youth had not attained an upper secondary education on average across OECD countries. Although fewer children were dropping out of upper secondary education in 2019 than in 2005 across most countries with data, still more than 10% of children leave school early in about a quarter of OECD countries. With less than 10 years left to deliver on the Global Sustainable Development Goals’ promise of education for all, the COVID-19 pandemic risks reversing the progress of recent years.

The higher the education level, the longer schools closed to contain the pandemic

Schools were fully closed for 55 days at pre-primary, 78 at primary, 92 at lower secondary, and more than 100 days at upper secondary and tertiary education on average between January 2020 and May 2021. In about a quarter of OECD countries, upper secondary schools were fully closed for more than 150 days over this period. The shorter duration of school closures in the early years of education underlines their importance in setting the foundations of cognitive, social, and emotional development, and accounts for the lower effectiveness of distance learning strategies for young children. The shift to distance education has also been particularly challenging for disadvantaged children who could not access learning materials or who lacked the supportive learning environment at home. 

Infographic showing that, generally, the higher the education level, the longer schools were closed during the first 18 months of COVID. Pre-primary schools were closed for 55 days on average, primary for 78 days, lower secondary for 92 days and upper secondary for 101 days

Public financial support to education can help reduce inequities in access to education

This is particularly true at levels of education where private provision of education is more common, such as in early childhood education and care or tertiary education where a third or more students enrol in private institutions. For example, in some countries where tuition for a bachelor progamme is higher than USD 4 000, at least 60% of students benefit from a public grant, scholarship or government-guaranteed private loan. However, public-to-private transfers are much less common at pre-primary level where they represent less than 1% of total expenditure.

In response to COVID-19, two-thirds of OECD and partner countries increased funding to education in 2020, and even more did so in 2021. But rising educational spending has not generally led to improved outcomes in the past, and countries must decide how to best allocate available resources for higher impact. Targeting funds to support struggling students recover from learning losses and leveraging the investments made in digital learning and teaching during the pandemic would go a long way in improving learning outcomes.

Rising educational spending has not generally led to improved outcomes in the past, and countries must decide how to best allocate available resources for higher impact

Tertiary-educated foreign-born adults are less likely to be employed than their native-born peers, but the opposite is often observed among those with lower educational attainment

On average across the OECD, foreign-born adults account for 22% of all adults with below upper secondary attainment, 14% of those with upper secondary or post-secondary non-tertiary education, and 18% of tertiary-educated adults. In most OECD countries, employment rates are lower among tertiary-educated foreign-born adults than among their native-born peers, but the opposite is often observed among those with lower educational attainment. These opposing trends reflect the dynamics of supply and demand for different skills and the challenges foreign-born tertiary-educated adults may face in gaining recognition for qualifications earned abroad.

The rise in educational attainment has benefited men less than women

Boys make up about 60% of upper secondary repeaters on average and are more likely to leave school without completing an upper secondary education. They are also more likely to pursue upper secondary vocational than general education, which may limit their options to enrol in higher education in some countries. In 2019, men made up 45% of new entrants to tertiary education on average. If current patterns continue, it is expected that 31% of young men will graduate with a tertiary degree for the first time before they turn 30, 15 percentage points lower than the share of women. Despite higher attainment, women are less likely to be employed and earn less than men in most OECD countries.

Unlike the 2008 financial crisis, the impact of the pandemic on unemployment has so far been more evenly distributed across different demographic groups

While unemployment increased by one to two percentage points between 2019 and 2020 on average, those with secondary or tertiary education have been affected in often-equal proportions in most countries, although there has been more variation across quarters. Similarly, the rise in unemployment over this period has been comparable across men and women with the same education level. 

Infographic showing the impact of COVID-19 on labour market outcomes. It shows that unemployment increased for all adults from 2019 to 2020

With vaccination rates on the rise, recovery from the pandemic may well now be within our sights. For all the human suffering COVID-19 has caused, it has also brought with it a new sense of awareness of the strengths and weaknesses of our societies, and a unique opportunity to redesign stronger, more resilient and inclusive ones.

Join us for a webinar on the key findings of Education at a Glance 2021 on 21 September with OECD Director for Education and Skills Andreas Schleicher

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