Tertiary education soars in middle-income countriesMore students than ever are seeking higher education in middle-income countries, where tertiary enrolment has jumped by 77 percent over the past decade. This compares to an increase of 43 percent in rich countries, according to a new study* by UNESCO and the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD).
Entitled Education Trends in Perspective - Analysis of the World Education Indicators, the study tracks demand for primary to tertiary levels of education between 1995 and 2003 and then analyses the policy choices made by 19 middle-income countries** participating in the UNESCO/OECD World Education Indicators (WEI) programme.
The results are all the more surprising given the relatively high cost of higher education. Even wealthy nations of the OECD find it difficult to mobilize the financial resources needed to maintain, let alone expand, access to higher levels of education. And as the report points out, OECD countries had the relative luxury of building their education systems for more than four decades without population growth: the number of children in 1995 and 2003 remained the same as in 1960.
The situation is very different in WEI countries. While declining birth rates mean that population pressure on basic education systems has decreased or even disappeared since 1995, secondary and tertiary school-age populations are still growing in most of these countries. These students and their families are generally aspiring to higher levels of education and are increasingly able to pay for it.
As a result, enrolment in upper secondary schools in WEI countries grew by 39 per cent between 1995 and 2003, compared to five per cent in OECD countries. In China, 28.5 million students filed into upper secondary classrooms in 2003 compared to 18 million just eight years earlier. In the same period, the number of upper secondary students grew from 5.9 to 6.5 million in Brazil while enrolment doubled in Paraguay (from 105,000 to 211,000).
Yet the most spectacular growth has occurred at tertiary level. The number of students in higher education almost tripled in Malaysia and Egypt. It more than doubled in China and Brazil***. Tertiary enrolment rates grew by more than 25 percent in the remaining WEI countries, except for the Philippines (20 percent).
Some WEI countries have even surpassed OECD countries in terms of the share of young people pursuing university education (leading to the equivalent of bachelor, master or diploma degrees). In OECD countries, every second young person begins these studies. In Argentina, the Russian Federation and Chile, this proportion reaches 62, 61 and 53 percent respectively and 50 per cent in Thailand. Every third person enters university in Malaysia and Uruguay.
The rising demand for education reflects the growing recognition of its economic and social benefits, both for individuals and societies.
Despite the currency shocks that hit many WEI countries in the late 1990s, they all increased the share of national budgets devoted to education (by 30 percent or more in Chile, Jamaica, Malaysia, Paraguay and Thailand).
But the report also highlights a growing reliance upon private sources of funding. In 2002, students and their families provided 37 percent of tertiary expenditure in WEI countries, compared to 13 percent in 1995.
According to the authors, these patterns reflect different conceptions of tertiary education. The high-spenders tend to see tertiary education as “a public good requiring government intervention”. For the others, the high individual returns of tertiary education – namely less unemployment and higher income ─ justify greater reliance on private funding.
The investments are paying off in many WEI countries, according to the report. In the Russian Federation, one out of three young people in the corresponding age group obtained a university degree in 2003, which is the OECD average. Comparatively high graduation rates were also found in Jordan (23 percent), Egypt (22 percent), the Philippines (21 percent) and Thailand (27 percent).
China had the lowest graduation rate at five per cent. The authors also found “surprisingly” low rates for Argentina (8 per cent) and Uruguay (9 per cent), given their high rates of students entering these academic programmes (62 and 32 per cent respectively).
* Education Trends in Perspective - Analysis of the World Education Indicators 2005 Edition, UNESCO/OECD, Montreal, 2005. ISBN 92-9189-024-3.
**Argentina, Brazil, Chile, China, Egypt, India, Indonesia, Jamaica, Jordan, Malaysia, Paraguay, Peru, the Philippines, the Russian Federation, Sri Lanka, Thailand, Tunisia, Uruguay and Zimbabwe.
*** Between 1995 and 2003 enrolment numbers increased:
- in Brazil from 1,782,686 to 3,582,105
- in China from 6,814,900 to 15,186,217
- in Egypt from 790,281 to 2,153,865
- in Malaysia from 227,689 to 632,309