Over the past decades, almost all OECD countries have seen significant increases in the educational attainment of their populations, this new analysis shows. Between 2000 and 2012 the average attainment level of the populations in OECD countries continued to increase as a result of two combined trends: the proportion of the people without upper secondary education decreased (at an average annual rate of nearly 3%), while the proportion of people with tertiary education increased (at an average annual rate of more than 3%).
Meanwhile, the proportion of the population with an upper secondary qualification remained stable, and upper secondary attainment is still the most commonly attained level of education in most OECD countries (about 45% of adults across OECD countries). Similar trends have been seen among younger adults (25-34 year-olds).
33% at higher levels
By 2012, about one in three adults in OECD countries held a tertiary qualification, including qualifications from more technical tertiary programmes as well as from universities. This growth has been spurred by younger adults: the proportion among 25-34 year-olds was 39%. In France, Ireland, Japan, Korea, Luxembourg, Poland and Spain, tertiary attainment rates for younger adults (25-34 year-olds) are more than 20 percentage points higher than those for older adults (55-64 year-olds).
As the attainment level of the population increases from generation to generation, adults may attain a higher level of education than their parents. The Survey of Adult Skills, a product of the OECD Programme for the International Assessment of Adult Competencies (PIAAC), found on average that 39% of adults have achieved a higher level of education than their parents across 24 national and sub-national entities participating.
Figures for individual countries reflect their particular pattern of expansion of attainment. For example, in Korea the dominant trend has been the increase in tertiary attainment between older and younger generations (the largest among OECD countries); in Finland, the significant increase between generations has been in the combined proportion of those with an upper secondary or tertiary qualification.
Danger of status quo
Educational status quo between generations is particularly worrying when it means the younger generation reproducing the low level of education of their parents. For instance, in Italy and Spain between 40% and 50% of 25-64 year-olds have not attained upper secondary education, as either of their parents. In Austria, the Czech Republic, Germany, Poland and the Slovak Republic, 35% or more of the adult population have the same upper secondary or post-secondary non-tertiary education as at least one of their parents.
Similar overall proportions of educational status quo among adults can mask different country profiles. For example, in both Austria and Spain, 55% of 25-64 year-olds have a similar level of attainment as their parents, but in Spain most of these adults did not reach the end of secondary education, whereas in Austria most have an upper secondary level of education.
The educational attainment in these countries is different: in Spain 45% of adults do not have an upper secondary education while in Austria 63% of adults have an upper secondary or a post-secondary non-tertiary education. Therefore, these countries face different challenges in increasing the education level of their populations.
Same figure, big difference
Even among countries with similar levels of upward educational mobility, students’ likelihood of attending tertiary education may be very different. For instance, in both Italy and Ireland around 45% of non-student 25-34 year-olds have attained an educational level higher than their parents. However in Italy a 20-34 year-old whose parents have a tertiary education is about 10 times more likely to participate in tertiary education than someone whose parents have below upper secondary education; in Ireland the figure is about 3 times (the average across participating countries is 4.5).
These differences can be down to various factors, such as financial barriers to entering tertiary programmes due to high tuition fees or lower financial support for continuing studies; or the financial incentives to graduate from tertiary education, considering the relative financial returns of education versus labour market opportunities.