Tertiary education rates have reached a record high as labour markets drive the growing need for advanced skills, but much more needs to be done to expand vocational education and training (VET) and tackle low completion rates on degree courses, particularly among male students, according to the 2022 Education at a Glance global survey.
While slightly over half of 18- to 24-year-olds in the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) countries were in education or training when the international policy forum took its snapshot of the state of global education early last year, that still left huge numbers of young people neither employed, nor in formal education or training (NEET).
NEET rates alarmingly high
In some countries NEET rates are alarmingly high even among tertiary graduates: over 30% of tertiary graduates in Greece and South Africa are not in work or education, the report says.
Despite the tough job market in some countries for young people, there is little doubt that “the dramatic rise in educational attainment is providing a unique opportunity to fuel economic and social progress in our countries”, according to OECD Secretary-General Mathias Cormann.
Having a university degree gives young people strong job market advantages. In 2021, the average unemployment rate for individuals across the OECD with tertiary attainment was 4%, compared to 6% for those with upper secondary attainment and 11% with below upper secondary attainment.
Full-time workers with tertiary attainment also earn on average around 50% more than workers with upper secondary attainment and nearly twice as much as workers without upper secondary attainment.
Low completion rates among men
However, despite the benefits of obtaining a tertiary degree, many tertiary students do not complete their programmes of study, with the study finding only 39% of bachelor degree students graduating within the expected timeframe for their programme.
Completion rates are particularly low among men in all OECD countries. On average, men are 11 percentage points less likely to complete their tertiary programme within its theoretical duration than women.
Corinne Heckmann, an analyst in the education and skills directorate of OECD, told University World News: “Low completion rates are costly for individuals and society because students reap only a fraction of the benefits of their studies if they do not complete their degree.”
She said there are “multiple reasons at play” for the gender differences in completion rates, including mandatory military service that disrupts studies of men in some countries and the stronger incentive for women to complete tertiary studies to get a good job.
Among the various ways to improve completion rates, the OECD report mentions financing of institutions being to some extent conditional on completion rates, thus creating incentives for institutions to help students complete their programme, and giving students greater flexibility in “what they learn, how they learn, where they learn and when they learn”.
This could be done by providing credentials for the acquisition of specific skills rather than obliging students to study for three or four years,” said Heckmann.
Make VET a first choice, ‘not a last resort’
And while the report found spending on tertiary education per student increasing faster than the growth in the number of students in most OECD countries, “not all students are best served by a tertiary degree and more efforts need to be made to expand vocational education and training [VET]”, according to the report.
It says: “Making VET a first choice rather than a last resort for students requires new links between upper secondary VET and professional tertiary education to give VET graduates the opportunity to obtain additional qualifications at a later stage.”
OECD analyst Viktoria Kis told University World News their data clearly shows that “young people who benefited from work-based learning while pursuing VET have better employment outcomes” and that “apprenticeships or internships are a powerful way of connecting VET to labour market needs”.
She said: “Some countries have a strong tradition of extensive use of apprenticeships, like Germany and Switzerland. The Norwegian VET system is mostly composed of ‘2+2’ apprenticeships: two years spent at school, followed by two years in workplaces.
“In Sweden work-based learning is now mandatory in all VET programmes and apprenticeships were introduced. France has also strongly increased participation in apprenticeship-type programmes.”
Plea for more work-based learning
However, challenges remain with eight OECD countries (Costa Rica, Czech Republic, Greece, Italy, Japan, South Korea, Lithuania and Mexico) reporting that their students in school-based programmes receive no or little work-based learning.
“Without high-quality work-based learning, providing high-quality VET is much harder,” said Kis.
“Another challenge is that some VET programmes lead to limited higher level learning opportunities: they either do not yield eligibility into tertiary education or if pathways exist to higher levels, they are rarely taken.
“If VET is viewed as a dead-end, then young people who would like to keep their options open or have their minds set on tertiary education, will avoid it. Unfortunately, not all countries have yet established strong pathways from VET to higher levels of education,” Kis told University World News.