Comparing Tertiary Education Systems Across the World in an Era of Internationalization

The Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development [2] (OECD) released its annual set of indicators on educational performance this summer with comprehensive data related to education attainment, mobility and spending at all levels of education among the organization’s member countries. The new findings, largely pertaining to data from 2009 (one year into the global economic downturn), show that the number of people with college degrees continues to grow significantly albeit at a slower rate than in previous years, with much of the growth coming from outside the OECD area. There was also growth in cross-border academic mobility in 2009, but again a slower rate of growth than in 2008. Also, for those without a college education, the global financial crisis has had a far greater impact than it has for those with a degree, the report found.

Education at a Glance 2011 [3],” published annually by the OECD, examines education data from the group’s 34 economically advanced member countries, in addition to the non-OECD, G-20 countries of Argentina, Brazil, China, India, Indonesia, Russia, Saudi Arabia, and South Africa. The report found significant links between educational attainment and employment levels. Across OECD countries, rates of unemployment among university graduates were 4.4 percent, which compares to an unemployment rate of 11.5 percent among people who did not complete high school, up from 8.7 percent in 2008.

Huge expansion of higher education in developing countries such as China and Brazil means that the balance of the world’s college graduates is now shifting from North America and Europe to the world’s emerging economies, especially those in Asia.

The United States still has by far the largest pool of graduates of any nation in the world, with 25.8 percent of the roughly 255 million working-age, college-educated people in OECD/G-20 countries; however, China is now home to 12.1 percent of graduates (likely higher as the Chinese figure pertains to data from 2000) versus Japan’s 11.4 percent share. Brazil, with 4.1 percent of graduates, is catching up with the United Kingdom (4.7%), while Korea – which has the highest percentage of young people in tertiary programs among OECD countries – is catching up to Germany’s 4.6 percent share of the graduate pool. Canada (3.6%), France (3.6%), and Spain (3.1%) make up the other top 10 countries.

According to the report, one in three university-educated retirees in OECD countries resides in the United States, whereas just one in five university graduates entering the workforce does so. The report’s authors predict that based on higher secondary completion rates, the proportion of the world’s graduates in China might reach as much as one in three of G20 and OECD graduates within a few years, which will inevitably lead to further shrinkage of advanced economies’ shares because of slower growth in tertiary participation rates.

However, while emerging economies are putting more children through school and increasing capacity in their tertiary systems, questions related to the quality of education and the types of degrees that students are graduating with are also key considerations.

Quality versus quantity

A 2005 study [4] examining the quantity and quality of engineering graduates from China and the United States found that while China was producing many more engineering graduates than the United States, when degree type was examined the disparity became far less significant, especially when normalized for population sizes. The Duke University study made a distinction between transactional and dynamic engineers, arguing that dynamic engineers have the leadership and creative skills necessary to become innovators while transactional engineers, who have earned sub-baccalaureate degrees only have technical expertise, but not the capabilities for innovation. The study found that the number of engineering baccalaureate graduates per million citizens in the United States was significantly larger than in China, despite an almost 3:1 imbalance in absolute numbers of engineering graduates at all levels.

McKinsey and Company Global Institute labor study [5], also published in 2005, found that just 10 percent of China’s engineers, and 25 percent of India’s, could compete in the global market. That report found that a higher percentage of engineers in low-wage nations like Poland, Hungary, the Czech Republic, and Malaysia, than in China and India, were competitive in the global job market.

Most international rankings of universities and university departments currently mirror this perception from an institutional-quality standpoint. However, according to Andreas Schleicher, the OECD’s head of education statistics and indicators: “One mistake we should not make is to assume that countries that upgrade quantity cannot upgrade quality at similar speeds. A lot is happening in China. They are not just putting more people into the higher education system.”

It should also be noted that large and growing numbers of students from emerging economies are studying internationally at the world’s best universities. The data suggest that they are now returning in ever-greater numbers due to better academic or job opportunities at home and more stringent visa policies in the countries of study.

Graduate ‘stay rates’

The OECD report points out that in countries with high proportions of international students like Australia, New Zealand and the United Kingdom, “graduation rates are artificially inflated.” By excluding international students from the data, graduation rates in those three countries drop by 15 percent, 9 percent, and 12 percent respectively.

This year, the OECD has included data on what it terms ‘stay rates,’ which it measures by looking at the number of international students who change from student status to another type of residence status. The rate is expressed as a percentage of international students changing to a status other than student to the amount of students not renewing their student permits in the same year.

The report found that stay rates averaged 25 percent among international students who did not renew their student permit in 2008 or 2009, and is above 25 percent in Australia, Canada, the Czech Republic, France, Germany and the Netherlands. In all countries with available data, the stay rate is higher than 17 percent and tops out at 33 percent in Canada. In 2009, 25 percent of foreign students in the United Kingdom converted their status from student to employed worker and decided to remain in the country. An average of 74 percent of students who change their status do so for work-related reasons.

The lack of time-series data on stay rates precludes any trends analysis, but tightening of visa standards in many popular education destinations, combined with better job opportunities in major sending countries like China and India suggest that stay rates in some of the bigger host countries are likely to trend down in the near term. In 2007, the Chinese government estimated the number of returning graduate students from abroad to be approximately 44,000. In 2010 that number was estimated at 135,000, growth of over 200 percent.

Much of this growth can currently be attributed to poor job prospects in host countries during a time of growing unemployment and high economic uncertainty; however, other factors are at play too. A reduction in the number allowed to remain, for example under new visa policies in the United Kingdom and Australia, are likely to have a strong impact on the size of the international graduate populations in those countries, factors that might further contribute to the reduction in their share of the talent pool when compared to developing economies around the world.

Trends in Internationalization

International academic mobility continues to grow. The OECD tells us that the number of students at the tertiary level moving across international borders for educational purposes increased in 2009 to almost 3.674 million students. This compares to 3.454 million students in 2008 or an increase of 6.4 percent, which is a slightly slower rate of growth than the 8 percent increase registered from 2007 to 2008.

Total global tertiary enrollments between 2008 and 2009 grew at 3.3 percent to 165 million (UNESCO – UIS), which again was slower than in the period between 2007 and 2008 when global tertiary enrollment registered a 3.6 percent increase. The OECD suggests that growth in international mobility might have been hampered during the period because of the financial crisis and reductions in support for studying abroad.

Australia (21.5%), the United Kingdom (15.3%), Austria (15.1%), Switzerland (14.9%) and New Zealand (14.6%) have the highest percentages of international students among their tertiary student bodies. They are the only OECD countries where international students make up 10 percent or more of total enrollments. However, at the research level, international enrollments account for more than 20 percent of the student body in Australia, Austria, Belgium, Canada, Iceland, New Zealand, Sweden, Switzerland, the United Kingdom and the United States.

The United States continues to dominate in terms of the absolute number of foreign tertiary students its universities and colleges enroll, with 18 percent of the 3.7 million enrolled worldwide. The United Kingdom (9.9%), Australia (7%), Germany (7%), France (6.8 %), and Canada (5.2% (2008)) are the next five biggest host countries. Combined, these six countries enroll 53.9 percent of all internationally mobile students.

European countries have a 38 percent share of enrollments, followed by North America with 23 percent. The fastest growing regions of destination are Latin America and the Caribbean, Oceania, and Asia, a fact that highlights the internationalization of universities in a growing number of countries.

In the nine years between 2000 and 2009, the share of international students who chose the United States as their destination of tertiary studies dropped from 23 percent to 18 percent. That share fell two percentage points for Germany and one percentage point for the United Kingdom. By contrast, the shares of international students who chose to study in Australia, New Zealand and the Russian federation grew by almost two percentage points.

In absolute terms, the largest numbers of international students are from China, India and Korea. Asian students represent 52 percent of foreign students enrolled worldwide (among countries reporting data to the OECD). Students from China represent by far the largest group of international students originating from non-member countries, with 18.2 percent of all international students enrolled in the OECD area. Of that number, 21.9 percent are studying in the United States. Chinese students in OECD countries are followed by those from India (7.3%), Malaysia (1.9%), Morocco (1.6%), Vietnam (1.5%) and the Russian Federation (1.3%). Almost half of all Indian students studying abroad (48.1 percent) in an OECD country are in the United States.

The predominance of Asian students in OECD countries is most pronounced in Australia, Japan and Korea, where more than 75 percent of international or foreign students come from an Asian country. Altogether, 32 percent of international students enrolled in the OECD area originate from another OECD country.

Shorter and vocationally oriented programs of study tend to be less international in make-up than longer degree programs. This is the case in all OECD countries except Denmark, Japan, New Zealand, Portugal and Spain. Most countries enroll significantly higher numbers of international students relative to total enrollments in advanced research programs than in undergraduate programs.

What are International Students Studying?

The popularity of a field of study depends significantly on the country of study. Broadly speaking, international students are most likely to enroll in the social sciences, business and law, and far less likely to undertake degrees in the humanities.

However, in non-English-speaking countries international students have a greater preference for education, humanities and the arts, while the sciences tend to be relatively unpopular across the board with no single country having more than 20 percent of its international student body enrolled in science-based programs.

Health-related programs are popular among international students studying in Eastern European countries, Belgium, Italy and Spain. But the numbers are much lower in other European countries, in part due to quotas that restrict access to medical programs, which conversely might help explain the popularity of medical programs in countries that do not have quotas.

Business studies attracts more international students than any other discipline at both the undergraduate and research levels in 14 out of 22 countries within the OECD.

Overall the concentration of international students in various disciplines is due to both supply and demand, according to the OECD. On the supply side some destinations offer centers of excellence or traditional expertise, such as Finland and Germany in science, engineering, manufacturing and construction.


In an age of dramatically increased global mobility and interconnectedness, governments are no longer content to measure educational success against prior national standards alone, but increasingly against the world’s best performing systems. The OECD indicators are perhaps the best means of comparison right now for countries wishing to measure their education systems against those of the economically advanced countries that make up the OECD area.

In order to move education policy forward, governments point to indicators as proxies for quality, and the OECD’s Education at a Glance report has become a pivotal tool in that arsenal, “providing indicators of educational performance that not only evaluate but also help shape public policy,” as the authors point out in the editorial at the front end of the report.

Expanding upon the theme of indicators as proxies for quality, the authors explain the need for greater, more detailed measures of educational quality: “As the quality of international indicators improves, so does their potential for influencing the development of education systems. At one level, indicators are no more than a metric for gauging progress towards goals. Yet increasingly, they are performing a more influential role. Indicators can prompt change by raising national concern over weak educational outcomes compared to international benchmarks; sometimes, they can even encourage stronger countries to consolidate their positions. When indicators build a profile of high-performing education systems, they can also inform the design of improvements for weaker systems.”