Students’ choices today shape tomorrow’s skills pool

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

One of the most decisive decisions taken in the course of a person’s life is choosing the field of study when entering higher education. This decision may be influenced by a variety of factors: family, social and economic background; cultural preferences among peers; values and belief systems; or even moral, political or ideological viewpoints. Preceding choices made during transitions in secondary school, have gradually narrowed the options available. Conflicting messages from employers, labour market agencies, governments and intermediary advisory bodies can impact the choices students make as well.

Nonetheless, students – mostly at the age of 18 – still have a fairly broad range of options to choose from. And today’s students no longer want to be the passive and obedient followers of antecedents, decisions made by others or well-intended advice. This is a decisive moment in which they take their own life in their own hands. Research on choice behaviour of students indicates that objective information, advice from teachers and counsellors or labour market prospects, do not have as much of an impact on the decision-making process as personal preferences and interests.

The latest issue of the Education Indicators in Focus series (No. 19) highlights the fields of study chosen by new entrants to higher education in OECD countries. The chart above illustrates that in European countries social studies, which includes business and law, is by far is the most frequently chosen field of study. On average, 32% of new entrants across OECD countries enrol in programmes in this field. Only in Finland and Korea is engineering, manufacturing and construction a more popular choice. In contrast, the field of natural sciences attracts only a small minority of students.

One of the most important dimensions in choice patterns is gender. The rapid increase in the number of female students has not yet altered the gender imbalances in certain fields of study, and on the contrary seems to have deepened them. Only 14% of female students enter a sciences programme, in contrast with 39% of male students. In contrast, education, health and welfare paint the opposite picture.

Students perceive their choices as purely individual decisions. And they make their choice with the optimistic belief that they will succeed in life, whatever the demands of the labour market. Yet, on an aggregate level they add up to a country’s future pool of human capital. The supply of high-level qualifications and skills is structured by a gendered partition between disciplines, each with their own specific configuration of skills and body of knowledge. The structure of human capital determines a country’s future range of possibilities in terms of economic and social development. Mismatches will always exist, but if they become large enough, a country has no alternative than to counterbalance this through high-skilled immigration. Countries acknowledge this risk and do take action to shift student choice patterns in a more desirable direction, by encouraging students, especially female students, to join STEM fields. These are all laudable and necessary actions, but it is unlikely that they will be able to significantly align student choices with future labour demand.

Even in the case of structural skills mismatch, the profile of a country’s future human capital should not be seen as a fatal verdict. Skills development is a dynamic process. Choices made at age 18 are important, but they do not condemn individuals or countries. Labour mobility across sectors and professions is an important phenomenon in today’s economies. New industries and occupations generate jobs and often recruit from various disciplines and professional backgrounds or bring new professions to life. (Why are there so many philosophers in the IT-industry?) Countries can prepare for future opportunities for growth by strengthening transversal skills in curricula, by fostering entrepreneurship and flexibility, and also by improving access to continuing education and training. Ultimately students have their own preferences when choosing a field of study and countries must cope with the outcomes of seemingly irrational choices.

Education Indicators in Focus, issue No. 19, by David Valenciano
On this topic, visit:
Education Indicators in Focus: 
On the OECD’s education indicators, visit:
Education at a Glance 2013: OECD Indicators:

Chart source: OECD Education at a Glance 2013: Indicator C3 (

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