Tertiary education statistics
From Statistics Explained
- Data from September 2012. Most recent data: Further Eurostat information, Main tables and Database.
This article presents statistics on tertiary education in the European Union (EU). Tertiary education – provided by universities and other higher education institutions – is the level of education following secondary schooling. Higher education plays an essential role in society, creating new knowledge, transferring knowledge to students and fostering innovation; some European universities are among the most prestigious in the world.
Since the introduction of the Bologna process (see the article on education and training introduced) a major expansion in higher education systems has taken place, accompanied by significant reforms in degree structures and quality assurance systems. However, the financial and economic crisis has affected higher education in different ways, with some countries investing more and others making radical cutbacks in their education spending.
Main statistical findings
The EU-27 had around 4 000 higher education (undergraduate and postgraduate) institutions, with almost 20 million students in 2010 (see Table 1). Four Member States reported more than 2 million tertiary students in 2010, namely Germany (note the data for this country excludes students enrolled at ISCED level 6), the United Kingdom, France and Poland; tertiary student numbers in Italy and Spain were just below this level and together these six countries accounted for two thirds of all EU-27 students in tertiary education. Romania was the only other Member State to record at least one million tertiary students in 2010.
Across the EU-27, just over one third (34.0 %) of the students in tertiary education were studying social sciences, business or law, with more female (3.9 million) than male (2.8 million) students in this field of education, as shown in Figure 1. The second largest number of students by field of education was in engineering, manufacturing and construction-related studies which accounted for 13.6 % of all students in tertiary education; three quarters of the students in this field were male.
The median age of students in tertiary education can be influenced by a number of factors: whether students postpone starting tertiary education either by choice (for example, by taking a break or a gap year between secondary and tertiary education) or obligation (for example, for military service); the length of the tertiary education courses studied; or the extent to which mature students return to tertiary education later in life. In 2010, the median age of students in tertiary education ranged from 20.3 in Ireland to 22.5 in Spain, with the Nordic countries of Sweden, Denmark and Finland, as well as Austria, Luxembourg, Greece and Germany above this range (see Figure 2); note that the German figure was above the EU-27 average of 22.1 years, even though the data exclude those students enrolled at ISCED level 6.
The strategic framework for European cooperation in education and training that was adopted in May 2009 set a number of benchmarks, including one for tertiary education, namely that by 2020 the proportion of 30- to 34-year-olds with tertiary educational attainment should be at least 40 %. Just over one third (34.6 %) of the population aged 30 to 34 in the EU-27 had a tertiary education in 2011, rising to almost four out of ten (38.5 %) among women, and falling to just over three out of ten (30.8 %) among men (see Figure 3). In Ireland, Luxembourg, Sweden and the United Kingdom, the proportion of 30- to 34-year-old men and women with tertiary educational attainment was already 40 % or more in 2011; this was also the case in Norway and Switzerland. By contrast, less than 20 % of men in this age range had a tertiary education in the Czech Republic, Slovakia, Romania and Italy, as was also the case in Croatia, the former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia and Turkey (where the proportion of women having a tertiary educational attainment was also below 20 %).
Almost 4.5 million students graduated from tertiary education establishments in the EU-27 in 2010. An analysis of the number of graduates by field of education shows that 35.7 % had studied social sciences, business and law; this share was higher than the equivalent share (34.0 %) of tertiary education students still in the process of studying within this field, suggesting that less students had started this type of study in recent years, or that drop-out rates were higher in other fields. A similar situation was observed for health and welfare, which made up 15.1 % of graduates from 13.6 % of the tertiary student population, as well as the smaller field of services studies. The reverse situation was observed for the other fields of education shown in Figures 1 and 4, most notably for engineering, manufacturing and construction-related studies.
Within the EU-27, female graduates outnumbered male graduates by a ratio of approximately three to two; this ratio reached three to one for health and welfare fields of education (see Figure 4). Male graduates outnumbered female graduates slightly in agriculture and veterinary fields, more so in science, mathematics and computing fields, and by close to three to one in engineering, manufacturing and construction-related fields.
Data sources and availability
The standards for international statistics on education are set by three international organisations:
- the United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organisation (UNESCO) institute for statistics (UIS);
- the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD);
- Eurostat, the statistical office of the European Union.
The main source of data is a joint UNESCO/OECD/Eurostat (UOE) questionnaire on education systems and this is the basis for the core components of the Eurostat database on education statistics.
The international standard classification of education (ISCED) is used to define levels of education: tertiary education includes both programmes which are largely theoretically based and designed to provide qualifications for entry to advanced research programmes and professions with high skills requirements, as well as programmes which are classified at the same level of competencies but are more occupationally oriented and lead to direct labour market access.
ISCED 97 also classifies the fields of education, with 25 fields of education in all at the 2-digit level, which can be further refined at a 3-digit level. At the highest 1-digit level the following nine broad groups of fields of education are distinguished: general programmes; education; humanities and arts; social sciences, business and law; science; engineering, manufacturing and construction; agriculture; health and welfare; services.
In 2007, a review of ISCED began and in November 2011 the revised version was approved by the Education Commission of the 36th UNESCO General Conference. ISCED 2011 will form the basis for internationally comparable education statistics in the future. Among other changes, the revised ISCED contains four levels of tertiary education compared with two categories in the current version. A major reason behind this proposed change was to reflect better the structure of Bachelor’s degrees, Master’s degrees and Doctorates. First results based on ISCED 2011 will be published in 2015.
While the Bologna process put in motion a series of reforms to make European higher education more compatible, comparable, competitive and attractive for students, it is only one strand of a broader effort concerning higher education. The modernisation agenda of universities is supported through the implementation of the 7th EU framework programme for research and the competitiveness and innovation programme. Furthermore, to establish synergies between the Bologna process and the Copenhagen process (for enhanced European cooperation in vocational education and training), the European Commission and EU Member States have established a European qualifications framework for lifelong learning (EQF).
In March 2008, the European institute of innovation and technology was established. Its aim is to bring together higher education, research and innovation through the creation of ‘knowledge and innovation communities’, while it should contribute towards Europe’s capacity for innovation.
The integrated economic and employment guidelines were revised most recently as part of the Europe 2020 strategy for smart, sustainable and inclusive growth. Guideline 9 concerns improving the performance of education and training systems at all levels and increasing participation in tertiary education.
The Erasmus programme is one of the most well-known European programmes. Around 4 000 higher education institutions take part in it and some 2.3 million students have already participated in exchanges since it started in 1987. Erasmus became part of the EU’s lifelong learning programme in 2007 and was expanded to cover student placements in enterprises, university staff training and teaching for enterprise staff. The programme seeks to expand its mobility actions in the coming years.
Some of the most recent policy initiatives in this area include efforts to develop links between universities and businesses. In April 2009, the European Commission presented a Communication titled ‘A new partnership for the modernisation of universities: the EU forum for university-business dialogue’ (COM(2009) 158 final). The Communication included proposals to establish a university-business forum as a European platform for dialogue, to enable and stimulate the exchange of good practice, discuss common problems, and work together on possible solutions.
Further Eurostat information
- Key Data on Education in Europe 2012
- Key Data on Education in Europe 2009
- The Bologna Process in Higher Education in Europe - Key indicators on the social dimension and mobility
- Education (t_educ)
- Education indicators - non-finance (t_educ_indic)
- Pupils and students (tps00051)
- Students (tps00062)
- Share of women among tertiary students (tps00063)
- Mobility of students in Europe (tps00064)
- Science and technology graduates by sex (tps00188)
- Education indicators - non-finance (t_educ_indic)
- Education (educ)
- Education indicators - non-finance (educ_indic)
- Participation/ Enrolment in education (ISCED 0-4) (educ_ipart)
- Tertiary education participation (educ_itertp)
- Participation/ Enrolment in education by sex (educ_ipart_s)
- Bologna process in higher education (educ_bo)
- Widening access (educ_bo_acc)
- Study framework (educ_bo_fin)
- Effective outcomes and employability (educ_bo_out)
- Student and Staff Mobility (educ_bo_mob)
- Education indicators - non-finance (educ_indic)
Methodology / Metadata
- Education (ESMS metadata file - educ_esms)
- Education attainment (ISCED 5-6), by parents education and sex - % (ESMS metadata file - educ_bo_ac_sobs_esms)
- Education attainment (ISCED 5-6), by sex and age - % (ESMS metadata file - educ_bo_ou_att_esms)
- Net entry rate (ISCED 5A) by age and sex - % (ESMS metadata file - educ_bo_ac_ent2_esms)
- Teachers stays abroad (Erasmus Programme) as % of academic staff (ISCED 5-6) (ESMS metadata file - educ_bo_mo_er_esms)
Source data for tables and graphs (MS Excel)
- Classification of learning activities – Manual
- UOE data collection on education systems – Volume1 – Manual - Concepts, definitions and classifications