Tertiary education statistics

From Statistics Explained

Data from September 2013. Most recent data: Further Eurostat information, Main tables and Database. Planned article update: December 2014.
Table 1: Students in tertiary education, 2011 (1) - Source: Eurostat (tps00062) and (educ_enrl5)
Figure 1: Students in tertiary education, by field of education and sex, EU-28, 2011 (1)
(1 000) - Source: Eurostat (educ_enrl5)
Figure 2: Median age in tertiary education, 2011 (1)
(years) - Source: Eurostat (tps00061)
Figure 3: Proportion of the population aged 30 to 34 having a tertiary educational attainment, 2012 (1)
(%) - Source: Eurostat (t2020_41)
Table 2: Graduates from tertiary education, by field of education, 2011 (1) - Source: Eurostat (educ_grad5)
Figure 4: Graduates from tertiary education, by field of education and sex, EU-28, 2011 (1)
(1 000) - Source: Eurostat (educ_grad5)

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 statistics 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 EU Member States investing more and others making radical cutbacks in their education spending.

Main statistical findings

The EU-28 had around 4 000 higher education (undergraduate and postgraduate) institutions, with just over 20 million students in 2011 (see Table 1). Four Member States reported more than 2.0 million tertiary education students in 2011, namely Germany, the United Kingdom, France and Poland; tertiary education student numbers in Italy and Spain were just below this level and together these six countries accounted for two thirds of all EU-28 students in tertiary education. No other Member State recorded more than one million tertiary education students in 2011.

Across the EU-28, one third (33.3 %) of the students in tertiary education were studying social sciences, business or law in 2011, 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 15.0 % of all students in tertiary education; nearly 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 2011, the median age of students in tertiary education ranged from 20.4 in Ireland, 20.6 in France and 20.7 in Belgium to 24.9 in Finland, 24.8 in Sweden and 24.6 in Denmark (see Figure 2).

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 (35.7 %) of the population aged 30 to 34 in the EU-28 had a tertiary education in 2012, rising to four out of ten (39.9 %) among women, and falling to just over three out of ten (31.5 %) among men (see Figure 3). In many Member States (Belgium, Denmark, Ireland, Spain, France, Cyprus, Lithuania, Luxembourg, the Netherlands, Finland, Sweden and the United Kingdom) the proportion of 30- to 34-year-old persons with tertiary educational attainment was already 40 % or more in 2012; this was also the case in Iceland, Norway and Switzerland. By contrast, the proportion of men with a tertiary education in this age range in Croatia, Slovakia and Italy did not even reach 20 %, as was also the case in Turkey (where the proportion of women having a tertiary educational attainment was also below 20 %).

Approximately 4.8 million students graduated from tertiary education establishments in the EU-28 in 2011. An analysis of the number of graduates by field of education shows that 34.8 % had studied social sciences, business and law; this share was higher than the equivalent share (33.3 %) 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 either drop-out rates or average course lengths were higher in other fields. A similar situation was observed for health and welfare, which made up 15.1 % of graduates from 14.0 % of the tertiary education 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-28, female graduates outnumbered male graduates by a ratio of approximately three to two; this ratio exceeded three to one for health and welfare fields of education and two to one for humanities and arts (see Figure 4). Male graduates outnumbered female graduates slightly 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 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 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 and celebrated its 25th anniversary in 2012. More than 4 000 higher education institutions take part in it and close to 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.

See also

Further Eurostat information


Main tables

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 (educ)
Education indicators - non-finance (educ_indic)
Tertiary education participation (educ_itertp)
Participation/ Enrolment in education by sex (educ_ipart_s)
Tertiary education graduates (educ_itertc)
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)

Methodology / Metadata

Source data for tables and graphs (MS Excel)

Other information

External links