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Higher Education factsheet

Higher Education factsheet
  • © Andrew Scott

Data on global participation in tertiary education, choice of subjects, research and qualifications, student mobility and other key issues

Global participation in tertiary education: :

  • There are almost 153 million tertiary students in the world, a 53% increase since the year 2000 and a fivefold increase in less than 40 years.

  • It is predicted that the demand for higher education worldwide will expand from 97 million students in 2000 to over 262 million students by 2025.

  • Globally, the percentage of the age cohort enrolled in higher education has grown from 19% in 2000 to 26% in 2007.

  • Regional participation in tertiary education is 71% in North America and Western Europe, 62 % in Central and Eastern Europe, 26% in the East Asia/Pacific region, 23% in the Arab States, 11% in South and West Asia.

  • Iceland and Austria lead the world with the highest graduation ratios of 65.6% and 60.7% respectively.

  • In Africa, enrolment in higher education has risen faster than elsewhere (by some 66% since 1999). Despite this rapid growth, Sub-Saharan Africa has the lowest participation rate in the world (5.6%). A child in sub-Saharan Africa today is still less likely to complete primary school than a child in Europe is to enter university.

  • Even in countries where enrolment is high, inequalities persist: in the United States, participation rates for minority students continue to lag behind.

  • OECD estimates that the participation of 40 or 50% of young people in higher education is considered vital for economic growth.

  • The pronounced differences in growth rates across regions have a dramatic impact on the distribution of the world’s tertiary education students: today, the majority live in low-and middle-income countries whereas 30 years ago the majority was concentrated in a few high-income countries.


  • Choice of subjects:
    • Most countries do not provide data by field of education. The imperfect data from 80 very different countries show that students choose the following subjects in this order:
      1. Social Science, Business and Law
      2. Education (including teacher training and education science)
      3. Engineering, Manufacturing and Construction
      4. Science (including life sciences, physics, mathematics and statistics)
      5. Health and Welfare (including medicine and social services)
      6. Agriculture and Services


    • Gender:
      • Since 2003, the average global participation of females in tertiary education has exceeded that of males. But women are still strongly disadvantaged in terms of access to tertiary education in South and West Asia and Sub-Saharan Africa. In the latter region, there are only 66 female students enrolled for every 100 male students.

      • In Science there are more males than females among tertiary graduates of 2007 in approximately two-thirds of 80 countries reporting data.

      • The higher the gross graduation ratio, the more likely women are to obtain a tertiary qualification. In contrast, men are at a clear advantage in countries with a low gross graduation ratio.

      • The number of women mobile students has grown at a faster rate than for men. The estimated proportion of female mobile students rose from 46% in 1999 to 49% in 2007. (However, most countries do not report mobile students by gender).


      • Student mobility:
        • About 2 out of every 100 tertiary students left their home countries to study in 2007

        • More than 2.8 million students are studying outside their home countries. Estimates predict this figure to rise to 8 million international students by 2020.

        • In 1999, one in four mobile students went to the United States while, in 2007, this was true for only one in five students.

        • Australia, Canada, France, Italy, Japan and South Africa have seen their shares of mobile students increase.

        • New popular destinations include China, the Republic of Korea and New Zealand

        • China accounts for the greatest number of students abroad (almost 420,000).

        • The other major countries of origin are: India, the Republic of Korea, Germany, Japan, France, the United States, Malaysia, Canada and the Russian Federation. These ten countries account for 38% of the world’s mobile students among 153 host countries reporting data.

        • The United States hosts the largest number (600,000) and share (21%) of the world’s mobile students followed by the United Kingdom, France, Australia, Germany, Japan, Canada, South Africa, the Russian Federation and Italy. These 10 countries host 71% of the world’s mobile students.

        • In 2007, almost one in four mobile students (23%) was enrolled in Business and Administration programmes in countries reporting data. Science is the second most popular field, attracting 15% of mobile student enrolment, followed by Engineering, Manufacturing and Construction (14%) and Humanities and Arts (14%).


        • Research and qualifications
          • The government sector funds directly or indirectly 72 percent of all academic research in OECD countries.

          • Less than 2% of students globally acquire advanced research qualifications (such as doctoral degrees)

          • It is possible that up to half of the world’s university teachers have only earned a bachelor’s degree

          • In China only 9 % of the academic profession has doctorates; in India, 35%.

          • The number of part-time academics has also increased in many countries – notably in Latin America, where up to 80% of the professoriate is employed part time.


          • Distance education :
            • The distance learning landscape has been transformed by new technologies.

            • There are 24 mega-universities in the world. Ten are in Asia and the Pacific. Some have over one million students (Indira Gandhi National Open University in India counts 1.8 million students).

            • The African Virtual University works across borders and language groups in over 27 countries.


            • The growth of private higher education :
            • An estimated 30 % of global higher education enrolment is now private.

            • Private higher education institutions, some of them for-profit or quasi for-profit, represent the fastest-growing sector worldwide.

            • Countries with over 70% private enrolment include Indonesia, Japan, the Philippines and the Republic of Korea

            • The private sector now educates more than half the student population in such countries as Mexico, Brazil, and Chile.

            • In many emerging economies the demand for places in higher education can be 20 to 50 % higher than places available in public institutions.

            • It is estimated that the private education market in 2006 approached US$400 billion worldwide and that it would continue to grow as the sector matures, particularly in emerging economies.


            • Financing higher education :
              • Most countries spend considerably more per student in tertiary education than in primary or secondary education.

              • In 9 out of 13 sub-Saharan African countries reporting data, public expenditure on a tertiary student is four to 11 times that of a secondary student.

              • In other regions, however, only 3 out of 56 countries reporting data spend more than four times on a tertiary student than on a secondary student.

              • In North America and Western Europe, cost differences are the least pronounced of all; public expenditure per tertiary student is barely double that of a secondary student.
                • Author(s):UNESCOPRESS
                • 07-07-2009
Europe and North America Latin America and the Caribbean Africa Arab States Asia Pacific