Tertiary education statistics
- Data extracted in December 2015. Most recent data: Further Eurostat information, Main tables and Database. Planned article update: September 2016.
This article presents statistics on tertiary education in the European Union (EU) and forms part of an online publication on education and training in the EU. Tertiary education — provided by universities and other higher education institutions — is the level of education following secondary schooling. It is seen to play an essential role in society, by fostering innovation, increasing economic development and growth, and improving more generally the wellbeing of citizens. Some European universities are among the most prestigious in the world.
Unlike school pupils, a relatively large number of students in tertiary education are mobile and study abroad: an analysis of this phenomenon is available in a separate article.
- 1 Main statistical findings
- 2 Data sources and availability
- 3 Context
- 4 See also
- 5 Further Eurostat information
- 6 External links
Main statistical findings
Table 1 presents data on the number of students in each of four levels of tertiary education. Bachelor’s, Master’s and Doctoral levels of tertiary education are found in all EU Member States, while short-cycle tertiary education, which are typically practically-based and occupationally-specific to prepare students for the labour market, is not part of the education system in Bulgaria, Estonia, Greece, Lithuania, Portugal and Romania, nor in Liechtenstein or the former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia. It is also quite uncommon in several others, for example in Germany.
Participation by level
In the EU-28 there were 19.6 million tertiary education students in 2013 (see Table 1), of which 7.5 % were following short-cycle tertiary courses, 60.7 % were studying for Bachelor’s degrees, 28.1 % for Master’s degrees and 3.7 % for Doctoral degrees.
In 2013, Germany, the most populous Member State in the EU, had 2.8 million tertiary education students, which was the highest number in the EU and equivalent to 14.2 % of the EU-28 total. The United Kingdom (12.2 % of the total), France (11.9 %), Spain (10.0 %), Poland (9.7 %) and Italy (9.5 %) had the next largest tertiary student populations, followed by the Netherlands where 3.4 % of the EU-28’s tertiary students studied.
Short-cycle tertiary courses were most common in France and Ireland where they accounted for more than one fifth of all tertiary students and were also relatively common in Malta, Latvia, Austria and Spain where they accounted for a share between 18 % and 20 %. In Turkey, short-cycle tertiary courses were even more common as almost one third (30.7 %) of all tertiary students were enrolled in such courses.
In 2013, more students were studying for Bachelor’s degrees than for any other level of tertiary education in all EU Member States. Indeed, France and Austria were the only Member States where fewer than 50 % of all tertiary students were studying for Bachelor’s degrees. By contrast, in Lithuania, more than three quarters of tertiary students were studying for Bachelor’s degrees and this share rose to more than four fifths in the Netherlands and peaked at 89.2 % in Greece, although an even higher share (93.8 %) was recorded in the former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia.
Less than one fifth of tertiary students were studying for Master’s degrees in 2013 in Finland, the United Kingdom, Belgium, the Netherlands, Ireland and Latvia, with this share falling below one tenth in Greece, as well as in Turkey and the former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia. By contrast, more than one third of tertiary students were studying for Master’s degrees in Germany, Croatia, France, Slovakia, Luxembourg and Italy.
In 2013, the highest proportion of tertiary students studying for Doctoral degrees among the EU Member States was 7.7 % in Germany, although higher shares were recorded for Liechtenstein (9.8 %) and Switzerland (8.1 %) among the non-member countries shown in Table 1. The lowest shares of doctoral students in total tertiary education were observed in Member States where higher educational institutions have only quite recently been established and are in the process of being expanded, for example in Luxembourg (0.5 %) and Malta (0.1 %).
Gender distribution of participation
In 2013, women accounted for 54.3 % of all tertiary students in the EU-28. The share of women among tertiary students was slightly higher among those studying for Master’s degrees (57.4 %), somewhat lower for those studying for Bachelor’s degrees (53.5 %) and following short-cycle courses (53.4 %). For doctoral studies, however, the majority (53.6 %) of the students were men.
In 2013, close to three fifths of all tertiary students in Poland, Sweden, Slovakia and the Baltic Member States were women. Women were also in a majority among tertiary students in all of the other EU Member States except for Greece and Germany. In Switzerland, Turkey and Liechtenstein, female tertiary students were also in a minority.
Focusing on students studying for Bachelor’s degrees, Greece and Germany were again the only EU Member States where there were more men than women studying in 2013; this was again also the case in Switzerland, Turkey and Liechtenstein. Among students studying for Master’s degrees women were in the majority in all of the EU Member States, but in a minority in Turkey and Liechtenstein. For the two tertiary education levels with smaller student populations the situation was more mixed. For short-cycle courses, 8 out of 22 Member States for which data are available had more male than female students, while men were in a majority among Doctoral level students in 17 of the 28 EU Member States (although in three cases the difference between the number of male and female doctoral students was quite small, around 50 or fewer).
Fields of study
Across the EU-28, one third (32.7 %) of all students in tertiary education were studying social sciences, business or law in 2013, with more female than male students in this field of education, as shown in Figure 1. The second most common field of education was engineering, manufacturing and construction-related studies which accounted for 15.7 % of all tertiary education students. In this field, three quarters of the students were male. The third largest field of study was health and welfare, with 13.2 % of all tertiary education students. In health and welfare close to three quarters of the students were female.
Approximately 4.8 million students graduated from tertiary education establishments in the EU-28 in 2013. The United Kingdom had the largest number of graduates, 792 thousand, followed by France (734 thousand), some way ahead of Poland (598 thousand) and Germany (496 thousand). Note that the relatively high number of graduates in the United Kingdom and France may, at least to some degree, reflect a shorter average course length; for example, France had the highest proportion of tertiary students following short-cycle courses of any EU Member State.
In 2013, an analysis of the number of graduates in the EU-28 by field of education (excluding Poland) shows that 34.0 % had studied social sciences, business and law. This share was higher than the equivalent share (32.6 %) of tertiary education students still in the process of studying within this field in 2013, suggesting that fewer students had started this type of study in recent years, or that either drop-out rates or average course lengths were higher in other fields. A similar situation was observed for health and welfare, which made up 14.3 % of graduates from 13.2 % of the tertiary education student population, as well as the smaller field of education studies (8.4 % of graduates compared with 8.1 % of students). The reverse situation was observed for the other fields of education, most notably for engineering, manufacturing and construction-related studies (14.6 % of graduates and 15.6 % of students), science, mathematics and computing (10.5 % of graduates and 11.3 % of students), and humanities and arts (11.6 % of graduates and 12.3 % of students).
Among the EU Member States a few fields can be identified from which — compared with the EU average — a particularly large or a particularly small share of tertiary students graduated in 2013. The share of graduates in science, mathematics and computing was relatively low in Belgium and Bulgaria, while it was particularly high in the United Kingdom. The share of graduates in health and welfare was relatively low in Luxembourg, Austria and Bulgaria, while it was relatively high in Belgium and Sweden. By contrast, the proportion of graduates in education was particularly high in Luxembourg and relatively low in Romania and France. Among some of the fields in which the total number of students was relatively low there was a greater diversity among the Member States: the share of graduates in services was more than double the EU-28 average in Austria, Croatia and Estonia; for agriculture and veterinary studies the Czech Republic and Croatia reported shares that were more than double the EU-28 average, rising to more than three times the EU-28 average in Greece.
Within the EU-28 (excluding Poland), close to three fifths (57.1 %) of all graduates in 2013 were women; this share was slightly higher (59.7 %) for social sciences, business and law, reached two thirds for humanities and arts, and exceeded three quarters for health and welfare and for education (see Figure 2). Male graduates accounted for close to three fifths of the total number of graduates for science, mathematics and computing fields, and close to three quarters of the total for engineering, manufacturing and construction-related fields. In the two smaller fields — agriculture and veterinary fields, and services — the number of graduates was almost balanced between men and women.
Relative to the size of the population, the number of tertiary graduates in science, mathematics and computing rose almost uninterrupted between 2003 and 2013, as shown in Figure 3, the only downturn being in 2009. Note that the figure shows the ratio between how many people graduated in a particular year in these fields (not the total number of people who have ever graduated in these fields) and the population aged 20–29. The gap between male and female graduates in these fields remained relatively constant throughout the period 2003–13.
An article on educational attainment statistics provides information on the proportion of the population having completed various levels of education. For tertiary education the share was 31.7 % among people aged 25–54 and 19.5 % among people aged 55–74. The Europe 2020 strategy sets a number of headline targets, including one for tertiary education, namely that by the year 2020 the proportion of 30–34 year-olds with tertiary educational attainment should be at least 40 %; in 2014, the share was 37.9 %.
Teaching staff and student–academic staff ratios
There were 1.4 million people teaching in tertiary education in the EU-28 (excluding Denmark and Estonia; 2012 data for Luxembourg — see Table 4 for details) in 2013, of which 83.9 thousand provided short-cycle tertiary courses. More than one quarter (26.7 %) of the tertiary education teaching staff in the EU-28 were located in Germany, with just over one tenth each in Spain (10.9 %) and the United Kingdom (10.5 %).
In contrast to the teaching staff in primary and secondary education, where women were in the majority, there were more men among the tertiary education teaching staff. Almost three fifths (59.0 %) of the EU-28’s (excluding Denmark and Estonia; 2012 data for Luxembourg) teaching staff in tertiary education in 2013 were men, a share that passed two thirds in Greece (66.9 %) and Malta (67.6 %), but fell below parity in Finland (49.3 %), Lithuania (44.5 %) and Latvia (43.7 %).
In 2013, student–academic staff ratios in tertiary education ranged among the EU Member States from an average of 10.2 students per member of academic staff in Malta to 21.9 in the Czech Republic, with Croatia (66.9) above this range.
Data on public expenditure tertiary education as a share of gross domestic product (GDP) are available for 26 of the EU Member States. This ratio ranged in 2012 from 0.7 % in Bulgaria to 2.1 % in Finland (excluding short-cycle tertiary) and 2.3 % in Denmark — see Figure 4. In the EU-28 (excluding Greece and Luxembourg), public expenditure on tertiary education was equivalent to 1.3 % of GDP in 2012.
Data sources and availability
The standards for international statistics on education are set by three international organisations:
- the United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organisation (UNESCO) institute for statistics (UIS);
- the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD);
- Eurostat, the statistical office of the European Union.
The main source of data used in this article is a joint UNESCO/OECD/Eurostat (UOE) data collection on education statistics and this is the basis for the core components of Eurostat’s database on education statistics; in combination with the joint data collection Eurostat also collects data on regional enrolments and foreign language learning.
Regulation No 452/2008 of 23 April 2008 provides the legal basis for the production and development of the EU’s statistics on education and lifelong learning. Two European Commission Regulations have been adopted concerning the implementation of the education and training data. The first, Commission Regulation (EU) No 88/2011 of 2 February 2011, concerned data for the school years 2010/2011 and 2011/2012 while the second, Commission Regulation (EU) No 912/2013 of 23 September 2013, concerns data for school years from 2012/2013 onwards.
More information about the joint data collection is available in an article on the UOE methodology.
The International standard classification of education (ISCED) is the basis for international education statistics, describing different levels of education; it was first developed in 1976 by UNESCO and revised in 1997 and again in 2011. ISCED 2011 distinguishes nine levels of education: early childhood education (level 0); primary education (level 1); lower secondary education (level 2); upper secondary education (level 3); post-secondary non-tertiary education (level 4); short-cycle tertiary education (level 5); bachelor’s or equivalent level (level 6); master’s or equivalent level (level 7); doctoral or equivalent level (level 8). The first results based on ISCED 2011 have been published in 2015 starting with data for the 2013 reference period.
ISCED 1997 and ISCED 2011 also described fields of education and training, but these were subsequently replaced by the ISCED-F 2013 classification. Eurostat data by fields of education are classified according to ISCED 1997 (which is the same as ISCED 2011 in terms of the fields of education) until 2015. The data for 2016 onwards will be classified according to ISCED-F 2013. The broad groups of fields of education in ISCED 1997 are: general programmes; education; humanities and arts; social sciences, business and law; science; engineering, manufacturing and construction; agriculture; health and welfare; and services.
Student–academic staff ratios for tertiary education are calculated by dividing the number of full-time equivalent students by the number of full-time equivalent members of academic staff; this ratio should not be confused with average class size, which refers to the number of students in a given course or classroom.
Tables in this article use the following notation:
- Value in italics: data value is forecasted, provisional or estimated and is therefore likely to change;
- ':' not available, confidential or unreliable value;
- '-': not applicable
Since the introduction of the Bologna process (see the article on Education and training statistics introduced) a major expansion in higher education systems has taken place, accompanied by significant reforms in degree structures and quality assurance systems. However, the financial and economic crisis affected higher education in different ways, with some EU Member States investing more and others making radical cutbacks in their tertiary education spending. In 2015, the Education, Audiovisual and Culture Executive Agency published a review of the implementation of the Bologna process, titled ‘The European Higher Education Area in 2015: Bologna Process Implementation Report’.
While the Bologna process put in motion a series of reforms to make European higher education more compatible, comparable, competitive and attractive for students, it is only one strand of a broader effort concerning higher education. To establish synergies between the Bologna process and the Copenhagen process (for enhanced European cooperation in vocational education and training), the European Commission and EU Member States have established a European qualifications framework for lifelong learning (EQF).
Europe 2020 and ET 2020 benchmarks
Higher education institutions are crucial partners in delivering the EU’s strategy to drive forward and maintain growth: the Europe 2020 strategy for smart, sustainable and inclusive growth has set a target that 40 % of people aged 30–34 in the EU should have a higher education qualification by 2020. Improving the performance of education and training systems at all levels and increasing participation in tertiary education is also one of the integrated economic and employment guidelines that were revised as part of the Europe 2020 strategy.
The strategic framework for European cooperation in education and training (known as ET 2020), was adopted by the Council in May 2009. It sets out four strategic objectives for education and training in the EU: making lifelong learning and mobility a reality; improving the quality and efficiency of education and training; promoting equality, social cohesion and active citizenship; and enhancing creativity and innovation (including entrepreneurship) at all levels of education and training. This strategy set a number of benchmarks to be achieved by 2020, including the above-mentioned target that the share of 30–34 year olds with tertiary educational attainment should be at least 40 %. Two supplementary benchmarks on learning mobility were adopted by the Council in November 2011, including one that, by 2020, an EU average of at least 20 % of higher education graduates should have had a period of higher education-related study or training (including work placements) abroad, representing a minimum of 15 European credit transfer and accumulation system (ECTS) credits or lasting a minimum of three months. Another benchmark on employability was added in May 2012: namely, that by 2020, the share of employed graduates aged 20–34 having left education and training no more than three years before the reference year should be at least 82 %.
The Erasmus programme was one of the most well-known European programmes and ran for just over a quarter of a century; in 2014 it was superseded by the EU’s programme for education, training, youth and sport, referred to as ‘Erasmus+’. In the field of higher education, Erasmus+ gives students and academic staff the opportunity to develop their skills and boost their employment prospects. Students can study abroad for up to 12 months (during each cycle of tertiary education). Around two million higher education students are expected to take part in Erasmus+ during the 2014–20 period, including 25 thousand students in joint masters’ programmes.
- Education and training in the EU — facts and figures
- Being young in Europe today — education
- The EU in the world — education and training
Further Eurostat information
- The EU is moving closer to its Europe 2020 goals on education, News release April 2015
- Share of young adults having completed tertiary education up to 37 %, News release April 2014
- Key data on education in Europe 2012
- The European higher education area in 2012: Bologna process — Implementation report
- The Bologna Process in Higher Education in Europe — Key indicators on the social dimension and mobility, April 2009
- Participation in education and training (educ_part)
- Education personnel (educ_uoe_per)
- Education finance (educ_uoe_fin)
Methodology / Metadata
- Education administrative data from 2013 onwards (ISCED 2011) (ESMS metadata file — educ_uoe_enr_esms)
Manuals and other methodological information
- Classification of learning activities — Manual
- Further methodological information on educational attainment.
- ISCED 2011 operational manual — Guidelines for classifying national education programmes and related qualifications
- UOE data collection on formal education — Manual on concepts, definitions and classifications, 2014
Source data for tables and graphs (MS Excel)
- UOE: Regulation (EC) No 452/2008 of 23 April 2008 concerning the production and development of statistics on education and lifelong learning
- From school year 2012/2013 onwards: Commission Regulation (EU) No 912/2013 of 23 September 2013 as regards statistics on education and training systems
- School years 2010/2011 and 2011/2012: Commission Regulation (EU) No 88/2011 of 2 February 2011 as regards statistics on education and training systems
- Education and training monitor, 2015
- European Commission — Education and training — Bologna process
- European Commission — Education and training — Higher education policy
- European Commission — Education and training — Strategic framework for education and training
- European Commission — Programmes — Erasmus+
- Eurydice — The information network on education in Europe
- OECD — Skills beyond school