Latest OECD figures show a trend towards tertiary education. Jane Marshall reports from Paris.
More than a third of the inhabitants of the 29 member countries of the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development will enter university level education at some point in their lives if current trends are maintained.
But most university entrants are no longer in their late teens, entering higher education immediately after secondary education, and success rates, measured in terms of the proportion of those graduating, vary widely, as does the average age of those enrolling and graduating.
A rapid rise in enrolment coupled with a low drop-out rate means that the United Kingdom now produces proportionately about as many graduates as the United States.
Increasingly, private financing is supplementing public spending through higher tuition fees or a growing contribution from private institutions.
These are among the conclusions of the 1998 edition of Education at a Glance - OECD indicators, published this week. It shows that after a pause in the mid-1970s, spending on education, particularly at the tertiary level, has begun to rise again.
"We try to capture in 'tertiary education' a much broader range of participation in education beyond compulsory education - including courses in the non-university higher education sector," said Andreas Schleicher of the OECD's education, employment and social affairs division. "It's a much more broadly based concept of higher education."
In all OECD countries, the number of students entering higher education has risen since 1990 - in half by 30 per cent or more. The proportion of entrants to tertiary level education is now 34 per cent overall. This figure, however, disguises major disparities within the OECD states. In the United States just over 50 per cent of the population enrols, for Finnish and Polish young people the figure is between 45 and 50 per cent and Britain sends a little more than 40 per cent of its population to tertiary education. By contrast, the entry rate for Greece is below 20 per cent. In highly developed states such as Germany, Austria and Norway the rate is 25 to 30 per cent.
Major differences are found in the age profiles of students. Only in Britain, Australia and New Zealand do even a quarter of students complete their studies by the age of 21. In Denmark and Norway fewer than 20 per cent of university entrants are under 21, whereas the comparative figure for Greece and Ireland is 80 per cent.
The report says it is "much harder to identify a 'typical' age of completion: the middle half of graduating students, ordered by age, are between 21 and 29 years in New Zealand and between 25 and 32 in Denmark - a range of seven years or more in both countries".
Throughout the OECD as a whole, spending on tertiary education relative to gross domestic product has increased since 1990. But that is not the case in Italy, Turkey and, to a lesser extent, Australia, Denmark, Canada and New Zealand.
Another trend is the move towards private finance. Although private sources account for less than 30 per cent of funds in most countries and play a negligible role in much of northern Europe, South Korea, Japan and the United States, it accounts for more than half of spending. The overall figure for the OECD is now 9 per cent.
JUST 22 PER CENT OF THE POPULATION GET A DEGREE
Dropout rates average about 35 per cent across the OECD states, according to the report. While on current trends 34 per cent enrol for higher education at some point in their lives, only 22 per cent actually emerge with a degree.
Britain, with Hungary and Japan, has one of the highest success rates - about 80 per cent. The US enrols a higher proportion of the age group than any other state but "loses" almost 40 per cent of them. The United Kingdom's relatively high graduation rate is achieved despite a fall in spending per student of more than 20 per cent since 1990 - one of the steepest declines among OECD member states.
The figures suggest that in Italy, on the other hand, a student entering higher education has only one chance in three of eventually graduating, with a success rate of 35 per cent. The conclusion has been questioned by Italy.
In Austria, between 25 and 30 per cent of the age group enter tertiary education, but 47 per cent of that group complete their courses.
The report points out that the low success rates in these two states may be accounted for by the absence of a short-cycle degree, such as a bachelor three or four-year option. In Austria a university course lasts for between six and seven years, in Germany and Italy six years.