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Education at a Glance 2019: OECD Indicators

The annual publication of Education at a Glance by the OECD offers an opportunity to compare and contrast different national systems of education. One of the aims of publishing Education at a Glance is to enable policy makers and other interested parties to undertake international comparisons. The full publication is available as a download from the OECD’s website.

International comparisons

In compiling the data, the OECD tries to ensure the indicators selected are as comparable as possible, while acknowledging that they also need to be country-specific to allow for “historical, systematic and cultural differences between countries” (p.3).

How the publication is structured

Running to almost 500 pages, the core of Education at a Glance is structured into four chapters. Each chapter being sub-divided by a number of indicators. Chapters A, B and C contain indicators and data relating to tertiary education.

Chapter A looks at the output of educational institutions and the impact of learning. The chapter comprises seven indicators. Indicator A4, for example, looks at “What are the earnings advantages from education?” Allowing a further breaking down of the data for different countries each indicator typically contains a number of figures and tables.

Chapter B examines Access to education, participation and progress, while Chapter C looks at the Financial resources invested in education.

Why focus on tertiary education?

The focus on tertiary education reflects the view that it is the element of the education system that makes the biggest difference. OECD suggests “intellectual capital has become the most valuable asset of our time.” The development of intellectual capital is based on knowledge, and the transfer of knowledge is the primary function of tertiary education.

Andreas Schleicher, Director of the OECD Directorate for Education comments “tertiary education is the equivalent of secondary education in the last century. It is the minimum entry ticket to the knowledge economy.” (OECD Podcast, Education at a Glance, 10 September 2019.)

The likely future development of tertiary education Is made more difficult by the uncertainty associated with the impact of artificial intelligence. Further, it is suggested that the traditional linear model of higher education is gradually being replaced by a more holistic vision of lifelong learning (p.9).

Demand for tertiary skills and continued expansion

OECD finds that the demand for tertiary skills remains strong despite the increasing supply of graduates. Nevertheless, ensuring the right supply of skills in a rapidly changing world is a challenge (p.9). “The expansion of tertiary education will only be sustainable if it balances the supply of graduates with labour market needs” (p.10).

Growth in student numbers and private benefits

The continuing growth of numbers in tertiary education (pp.41-42) is evidenced, together with the levels and changing proportion of young people entering individual national systems of tertiary education (Figure A1.3). The data also confirms the earnings (Indicator A.4) and other advantages (e.g. reduced levels of inactivity) on average continues to characterise those who attain tertiary qualifications, when compared to those whose highest level of attainment is upper secondary qualifications. (Eg. Figure A3.3).


The proportion of international students increases with each successive level of tertiary education (Figure B6.3). Further, OECD’s analysis, confirms that the United Kingdom is second only to the United States (which has a much larger system of tertiary education) in the number international students studying at is institutions.

Country note - UK

Alongside publishing Education at a Glance, the OECD releases a Country Note offering data and comments on the education system for each individual nation state. The Country Note for the UK highlights the following:

  • Tuitions fees in England are higher than in all OECD countries and economies except the United States
  • Nearly one-quarter of 25-64 year-olds (23%) have a bachelor’s degree, which is 5 percentage points above the OECD average
  • There is considerable variation in the employment rate among tertiary-educated adults by field of study
  • There is a relatively large difference in earnings advantage across fields of study in the United Kingdom.
  • There is a substantial gap (more than 10 percentage points) between the share of tertiary-educated 25-64 year-olds who studied engineering, manufacturing and construction and the share of recent graduates who have done so. The share of recent graduates getting a degree in this field is less than half the share among the tertiary-educated population.
  • In spite of high tuition fees and lower than average earning premiums for tertiary graduates, the gains (over a lifetime) associated with a higher level of education still greatly exceed the cost of tertiary studies in the United Kingdom.
  • In the United Kingdom, the public cost of tertiary education is far outweighed by its benefits for the society through the additional tax and social contributions paid by graduates.
  • Spending per student on tertiary institutions in the United Kingdom is US Dollars (USD) 23,771 which is substantially above the OECD average of USD 15,556. Only three countries spend more per student: Sweden (USD 24,341), the United States (USD 30,165) and Luxembourg (USD 48,407).
  • A relatively high share of the funding of tertiary educational institutions in the United Kingdom comes from the private sector.


Education at a Glance and the associated Country Notes reveal the characteristics and performance of the different national systems of tertiary education. The data enables comparisons to be made between the UK’s and other national systems of tertiary education.

Education at a Glance equally provides evidence of the broad trends across the OECD countries, suggesting possible areas for policy attention and change.

The data offers governors and governance professionals the opportunity to compare and contrast the UK’s systems of tertiary education, and to consider possible future developments and trends.