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As higher education marketers, we’re always on the lookout for emerging trends in the industry and reliable evidence to support the development and implementation of new initiatives. The Organization of Economic Cooperation and Development’s (OECD) recently released its Education at a Glance 2014 report, providing just this kind of evidence for education decision-makers to develop data-driven policies and marketing initiatives. The annual statistical publication is the authoritative source for comparing education systems around the world among the 34 OECD member nations and 10 other emerging economies featured in the report. Consisting of over 150 charts, 300 tables and over 100,000 figures, it provides valuable benchmarks for colleges and universities to compare policies in a global context – but if you don’t have time to skim the 570-page document, here are the key revelations and what they mean for your school.

oecd education development

More Education Yet Growing Disparities

While several organizations have highlighted various aspects from the lengthy report relevant to their particular agendas, there are a few general trends that should be of note to anyone in the sector. Access to education and post-secondary (tertiary) attainment levels throughout the world are shown to be better than ever – close to 40% of young adults in OECD countries now hold a tertiary degree, a rate that has been rising by an average of 3.4% per year since 2000. This rapid growth in participation and completion rates has prompted a majority of these nations to boost their expenditure to support post-secondary institutions (as a proportion of GDP) while on the other hand one-third have cut public spending and raised tuition fees. Overall, public expenditure on higher education fell from 75.3% of total spending to 69.2% between 2000 and 2011.

The OECD argues that this “expansion in education has not translated into a more inclusive society.” Its editorial notes that “the increasing social divide between the educational ‘haves’ and ‘have-nots’ – and the risks that the latter are excluded from the social benefits of educational expansion – threatens societies as a whole.” Educational upward mobility in this instance refers to achieving a higher level of education than one’s parents, and this is slowing among younger generations. Of 55-64 year-olds, 42% achieved higher education qualifications than their parents – a rate that drops to 38% of 35-44 year-olds and 32% of 25-34 year-olds.

Andreas Schleicher, the OECD’s director of education asserts that “the most worrying part is it’s the young people, the most recent graduates, that are seeing the least mobility in their life chances.” He suggests that “making education more relevant, bringing education to the people who need it most, who can make most of a difference … remains the formidable challenge.”

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The statistics indicate that higher education is increasingly important for finding employment, with over 80% of tertiary-educated adults employed compared to less than 60% of those with below upper secondary education. Those with a degree earned about 70% more, on average. The gap between high and mid-education increased twice as fast as that from mid- to low-, indicating that the middle class is falling behind. Significant structural changes in the increasingly knowledge-based global economy favour the better educated.

The report makes a strong argument for reversing the trend towards funding cuts and increasing public investment in education. Not only are grads more likely to be employed and earn more, but the net public return on investment (from tax revenues and social contributions) is almost triple the public investment for males and double the amount for females. Expanding higher education benefits both individuals and society, improving economic consumption, health and many other factors while reducing public expenditure on social welfare.

Changing Student Demographics

Although tertiary education offerings vary widely between countries, it would seem that graduation rates are influenced by the ease of access to and flexibility in completing programs, in addition to existing demand for higher level skills in the labour market. As access to education expands with new types of training institutions and delivery models, the student population is increasingly diverse:

  • The average age of students is increasing, with older non-traditional students often upgrading qualifications to compete in a tougher job market
  • Females are now more likely than males to complete upper secondary education; it’s estimated that 47% of women in OECD countries will complete university during their lifetimes compared with 31% of men
  • International students represent a large and growing share in several countries, including Australia (18%) and New Zealand (11%)

The number of international students more than doubled between 2000-12 with an annual growth rate of nearly 7%. The US continues to host the most international students but its share has been declining (from 23% in 2000 to 16% in 2012) as other countries catch up. Study destinations are increasingly selected based on the perceived quality of education offered, according to widely available rankings. Tuition costs don’t appear to necessarily discourage prospective international students, provided the education quality and resulting return on investment is sufficient. However, the shrinking US market share may be attributed to its relatively higher tuition fees.

international student recruitment

Immigration policy, recognition of foreign degrees, existing links between countries, and the flexibility of programs in counting time abroad towards degree requirements are among other factors believed to influence the study abroad decision. Language and cultural/geographic proximity are also important motivations, although students from neighbouring nations form only a small percentage in Canada and the United States.

Lessons from Chile about Continuing Education

Continuing education for adults is an effective option for improving and diversifying skills to adapt to a changing labour market. Chile has become one of the world’s fastest growing economies despite challenges in overcoming educational system neglect lingering since its military dictatorship, which ended in 1989. In 2002, the Chilean government initiated The Lifelong Learning and Training Project (Chilecalifica), an unprecedented program broadly integrating education, work and economy by combining the efforts of the three ministries and collaborating with civil society and the private sector. By vastly enhancing opportunities for lifelong training with accessible and flexible training, and aligning vocational curriculums with the labour market, Chile was able to facilitate involvement in all aspects of economic and social life.

Here are some key lessons that have emerged from Chilecalifica:

  • Partnerships between public and private sectors are essential for incentivizing performance and promoting healthy competition among education providers
  • Effective lifelong learning and training systems require good coordination and evaluation systems, and articulation of technical training with the market’s demands

adult education recruitment

Continuing learning opportunities are increasingly important for both high- and low-skilled occupations. Creating a culture of lifelong learning through regular updating training encourages essential adaptability and increased education participation results in the pursuit of further education in later years. Colleges and universities should strive to reach those prospects that are less likely to pursue education by directly addressing and resolving common objections, such as work/family obligations and cost. Introducing greater flexibility in program delivery and pre-requisite qualifications can expand the student recruitment pool while encouraging a culture of returning to learn further.

Implications for Higher Education Marketing

Although a brief glance at the recent OECD report may not yield groundbreaking revelations for admissions decision-makers who already follow education trends, it does highlight some important areas for improvement and further study. Expanding education access to less traditional recruitment sources and developing the connection between training and employment outcomes should be a priority for any college or university. Public/private collaborations and joint strategic development can’t be underestimated when it comes to adult education or international student recruitment.

Statistical reports such as this and internal research into online performance using Google Analytics provide valuable evidence that can be integrated in marketing materials and policy negotiations. As OECD concludes: “Without data, you are just another person with an opinion.”

What was most interesting to you about the Education at a Glance report?