Many students choosing useless degrees over learning skills, OECD official says

Higher education must move away from unwieldy three and four-year degrees and prepare young people for the job market

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Third-level institutions need to move away from unwieldy three and four-year degrees to prepare students for a changing world, according to a top official from the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development.

On Monday, the OECD launched its major education report entitled "Education at a Glance" that showed the share of young adults with advanced tertiary (third-level) qualifications across the OECD reached a record 48 per cent of 25-34 year-olds in 2021, compared with just 27 per cent in 2000.

Andreas Schleicher, OECD director for education and skills, emphasised that vocational training needed to be “not a last resort but first choice”.

Mr Schleicher said youngsters were entitled to better advice about the job market and their future prospects.

We have large shares of young people choosing degrees that actually may not exist when they graduate
Andreas Schleicher, OECD

“We have just seven per cent of young people in information and communication technology,” he told The National.

“That is the future and just a tiny share. We have large shares of young people choosing degrees that actually may not exist when they graduate.”

The report showed that numbers were highest in South Korea at 69.3 per cent, followed by Canada at 66.4 per cent.

The increase was especially notable among women, who now make up 57 per cent of all third-level educated 25 to 34 year-olds.

Figures also showed that those with a third-level degree were likely to have a job that earned more than those who didn’t and were also more likely to be comfortable to adapt to new technologies.

But not all students are best served by such degrees and more efforts need to be made to expand vocational education and training.

“[There needs to be a] focus on making university degrees as relevant as possible in the context of the needs of economy and society,” said OECD Secretary General Mathias Cormann.

“We need to improve the quality of advice and guidance too young people on what path to follow.”

Mr Cormann said it should be made easier to switch from vocational training and third-level degrees so the “relevance of both education systems are further improved”.

The report analysed the education systems of the 38 OECD member countries, as well as Argentina, Brazil, China, India, Indonesia, Saudi Arabia and South Africa.

This year’s edition also covered the impact of the Covid-19 pandemic; public and private spending on education; the earnings’ advantage of education; entry to and graduation from third-level education; statutory and actual salaries of school heads; and teacher salaries and instruction times.

Here are some of the main findings:

Covid-19 and its lingering effect

The report highlighted that countries should do more to ease the impact of the Covid-19 pandemic on young people’s learning, development and mental health.

Covid-19 caused havoc with education across the globe in 2020 with more than 1.5 billion students in 188 countries and economies essentially locked out of their schools.

While most are now back in the classroom, the report said the sector was still grappling with "persistent challenges" from the pandemic.

It found that 24 out of 30 countries implemented initiatives at the primary to upper secondary level to give students additional support in the 2021 to 2022 school year.

In contrast, only 19 out of the 28 countries did the same at pre-primary levels.

“Across the countries with available data, national measures to provide students with additional support have focused more on primary to upper secondary education than on other levels,” the report found.

“It is crucial for countries to have clear strategies for recovery in education to address the impact of the pandemic on young people’s learning, development and mental health.”

Report authors said the data might reflect the fact school closures were longer in post-primary but the broader findings of the report showed how “concerns about students’ mental health were at the forefront of countries’ national recovery measures” in the 2021 to 2022 school year.

Teacher and student absences, whether due to Covid-19 infections or to quarantine periods, “continued to disrupt the learning process”. However, many countries struggled to monitor absences systematically and only 11 OECD countries and other participants were able to provide comparable figures on teacher absences. Of those, eight noted an increase in teacher absences in at least one educational level compared to previous years.

Benefits of third-level education

Full-time workers with third-level qualifications earned around 50 per cent more than workers with upper secondary qualifications, and nearly twice as much as workers without, the report found.

Better educated adults may also find it easier to adopt new technologies that improve their quality of life. For example, 71 per cent of 55-74 year-olds with tertiary attainment used online or video calls during the pandemic, allowing them to stay in touch with family and friends and avoid social isolation, the report stated.

Rates were highest in the Netherlands (84 per cent) and Norway (83 per cent).

Despite the benefits of obtaining a third-level degree, many students do not complete their programmes of study. Only 39 per cent of bachelor’s students graduate within the expected timeframe for their programme. Completion rates are particularly low among men in all OECD countries. On average, men are 11 per cent less likely to complete their programme within its intended duration than women.

Updated: October 03, 2022, 3:13 PM