The OECD's annual Education at a Glance report, published on 18 September, praises the 7% rise, over the past ten years, in the number of people that finish higher secondary education (now 82% in the 'club' of the world's 30 most-industrialised countries) and the 12% increase in those that successfully complete a university-level course (now 36% of the population).
The development of higher education goes hand in hand with "more prosperous economies", according to the organisation, which adds: "In all countries, the penalties for not completing upper secondary education are significant. On average, unemployment rates among people who do not complete high school are five percentage points higher than people who complete upper secondary education and seven points higher than people with university degrees."
The report, however, stresses that most governments could still make improvements to their education systems, explaining that, although school spending is currently higher than ever, "the results gained from that investment are far from maximised".
The United States, for example, is the second-highest spender on education within the OECD, but, according to the report, very little of this money actually reaches the classroom.
While Italy joins the US as one of the worst performers, the report finds that other EU countries such as Finland, the Czech Republic, the Netherlands, Poland and Hungary spend significantly less per student, while scoring better in international tests.
The OECD suggests that education expenditure could be cut by up to 30% without having an impact on results, if more efficient teaching methods were introduced. And, if all schools performed as well as the best, learning standards could be increased by as much as 22%, without any additional spending.
The findings should interest the EU, where boosting education standards and, at the same time, limiting public spending, are two of the major priorities of its Lisbon Agenda for Growth and Jobs (see LinksDossier).
Lastly however, the report points to large disparities remaining in education systems, where, in countries like Germany, Austria, France and Portugal, children whose parents are manual workers have up to 57% less chance of attaining higher education, thereby deteriorating their labour-market situation. Ireland and Spain emerge as the countries in which socio-economic background has the least impact on access to higher education.