People with university degrees suffered far fewer job losses during the global downturn than those who left school without any formal qualifications, according to the 2011 edition of the 'Education at a Glance' report, compiled by the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD).
Good education and skills are crucial to improving economic and social prospects, found the report, which gathers comparable statistical data on access to education, investment in education, student-teacher ratios, teaching hours and graduation rates.
The report covers 34 OECD countries (including all EU member states except Bulgaria, Cyprus, Malta, Latvia, Lithuania and Romania) as well as other countries such as Brazil and China.
Unemployment rates among university graduates averaged 4.4% in OECD countries in 2009 – the reference year for the study – while those who failed to complete secondary school faced joblessness of 11.5%, up from 8.7% in 2008.
'Lost generation' risk
"The cost to individuals and society of young people leaving school without a qualification keeps rising," said OECD Secretary-General Angel Gurría, calling for "all means" to be taken to "avoid the risk of a lost generation".
Gurría called on governments to keep up their investment to maintain quality in education despite strained public budgets. "Investment in education is not only about money: it's also an investment in people and an investment for the future," he said.
Across the 21 EU countries covered by the report, an average of 75% of the population aged 25-64 has at least an upper secondary education, compared to an OECD-wide average of 73%.
The best-performing EU countries were Finland, Ireland, Portugal, Slovenia and the UK, where secondary-school graduation rates all equal or exceed 90%.
Meanwhile, 27% of the population in the 21 EU nations has received a tertiary education, compared to an OECD average of 30%.
Androulla Vassiliou, the EU commissioner for education, culture, multilingualism and youth, said the report's findings underlined "the importance of our Europe 2020 targets to reduce early school leaving and boost university education, both in terms of increasing graduate numbers and quality" (see 'Background').
Education must be 'top priority'
"35% of jobs in the EU will require high-level qualifications by 2020, so it's vital that we continue to invest properly in schools and universities. Education must remain a top priority for the EU, even in a tough economic climate," Vassiliou said.
Women make up the majority of students and graduates in the vast majority of OECD countries and dominate the fields of education, health, welfare, the arts and humanities. Men dominate in engineering, manufacturing and construction.
Young women are more likely to complete upper secondary education than young men in all EU members of the OECD except Germany.
Based on current graduation trends, 82% of young people in the OECD today will complete upper secondary education, but those who fail to do so will face ever greater challenges in entering and remaining in the job market.
Indeed, over 50% of 15-19 year olds who are not in school are unemployed, while in most countries, young people in that age bracket who are not in employment, education or training receive no welfare support. Moreover, they are twice as likely as their older counterparts to give up looking for work completely.
"The penalties are high for those without basic qualifications, and the gap is widening between those with qualifications and those without," OECD director for education Barbara Ischinger told EU officials and journalists at yesterday's launch event in Brussels.
Boost higher education funding, EU urged
European countries have made huge strides in the last few decades to increase investment in education and they have borne the fruits of this effort as university attendance has soared.
"But expenditure is not catching up with rising numbers of tertiary students. To maintain standards of tertiary education and ensure equal investment per student, investment will have to increase," Ischinger warned.
The report found that unemployment rose much more dramatically during the crisis among those without upper secondary qualifications than it did among degree holders.
"Unemployment rates for those with a tertiary education remained below 10% in all OECD countries, whereas job losses among those who left school with no secondary education soared," Ischinger said.
OECD researchers conclude that government budgets benefit from investment in education in the long term because the better educated are less likely to need unemployment benefits or welfare assistance, and pay more taxes when employed.
"A man with a tertiary education will play back an average $91,000 in income taxes and social contributions over his working life, over and above what the government pays for his degree," they said.
Meanwhile, Europe must face up to the increasingly global nature of the university market and work much harder to attract foreign students than at present, EU officials heard.
"The globalisation of education should now be at the centre of debate in all OECD countries, because the number of foreign students has soared," argued Eric Charbonnier, an education analyst at the OECD.
Chinese and Indian young people are most likely to choose to study in foreign climes, but at present the USA and Japan are their most popular destinations, meaning that not only are European universities failing to tap into a lucrative source of income, but its economies as a whole are losing out as many such students opt to work in their adopted countries after graduation.
Teachers' salaries vary widely
Meanwhile, teachers' salaries vary widely from one EU country to the next. The salaries of lower secondary school teachers with at least 15 years of experience range from less than $15,000 in Hungary and the Slovak Republic to $60,000 or more in Germany, Ireland and the Netherlands. They exceed $100,000 in Luxembourg.
In most OECD countries, teachers' salaries increase with the level of education taught. In Belgium, upper secondary school teachers with 15 years of experience earn about 30% more than both primary and lower secondary school teachers with the same experience, while in Luxembourg, both lower and upper secondary school teachers receive the same salary, which is 50% higher than that of a primary school teacher.
The European Commission will use the report to draw up a list of recommendations on education for national governments to consider ahead of the next 'European semester' or cycle of economic policy coordination.