Australia’s Educational Attainment is Improving

Educational achievement amongst Australia’s adult population is on a par with the OECD average, but significantly below several other high income countries according to the OECD’s latest annual, Education at a Glance. However, attainment is significantly higher for Australia’s younger age groups compared to older age groups, indicating that education levels have improved over generations.

In 2008, 70% of Australia’s population aged 25-64 years had completed at least an upper secondary education compared to the OECD average of 71% [see Chart 1]. Australia ranked 17th out of 26 selected OECD countries.

In contrast, around 80% of more people in this age group had an upper secondary education in 13 countries. The highest proportions were in the Czech Republic (91%), Slovakia (90%), the United States (89%), Canada (87%), Poland (87%) and Switzerland (87%).

Of the population aged 25-34 in Australia, 82% had completed upper secondary education compared to the average of 80% for the OECD. Australia ranked 18th out of 26 selected OECD countries. Ninety per cent or more of this age group had at least upper secondary education in 8 countries: Korea (98%), Czech Republic (94%), Slovakia (94%), Poland (93%), Canada (92%), Sweden (91%), Finland (90%) and Switzerland (90%).

While the proportion of Australia’s population aged 25-64 which has completed at least upper secondary education is similar to the OECD average, the proportion which has completed tertiary education (36%) is significantly higher than the OECD average of 28%.

Overall, a comparison of the levels of educational attainment in younger and older age groups indicates marked progress with regard to attainment of upper secondary education. The proportion of 25-34 year-olds with at least an upper secondary education in Australia is 27 percentage points higher than that of 55-64 year-olds. The average difference across OECD countries is 22 points.

Australia was ranked 9th in terms of the improvement between the age cohorts. The change was particularly dramatic in Belgium, Greece, Ireland, Italy, Korea, Portugal and Spain, all of which saw an increase in upper secondary attainment of 30 percentage points or more.

There has also been a dramatic improvement in education attainment over the last decade. There was a large drop in the proportion of the 25-64 year-olds with below upper secondary education and a large rise in the proportion who have completed tertiary education.

In 1997, 47% of Australia’s population aged 25-64 had not completed upper secondary education, 29% had completed upper secondary and post-secondary non-tertiary education, and another 24% had completed tertiary education [see Chart 2]. In 2008, the proportion with below upper secondary education had fallen to 30%; the proportion with tertiary attainment had risen to 36%, while the proportion with upper secondary and post-secondary non-tertiary education increased to 34%. These improvements exceeded the average for all OECD countries.

All this suggests that the increased investment in education in Australia has paid off. Higher proportions of the adult population now have higher educational attainment and skill levels than in 1997. The increased expenditure on education has provided more people with the knowledge, skills and competencies needed to participate effectively in society and in the economy.

Despite this past success, the education investment effort must be expanded in Australia. The school participation rate for 15-19 year-olds in Australia has been virtually unchanged since 1995 at around 81%. Australia is ranked 20th amongst the 31 OECD countries in the proportion of 15-19 year-olds engaged in education. Many countries have participation rates of around 90%.

Australia’s stagnant school participation rate likely reflects the persistent large achievement gap between rich and poor students. This is where the expanded investment effort should be targeted.

Trevor Cobbold

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