Tertiary education statistics
Data extracted in June 2022.
Planned article update: July 2023.
In the EU there were 18 million tertiary education students in 2020, of which 60% were studying for bachelor’s degrees.
In 2020, 22% of tertiary education students in the EU were studying business, administration or law.
Within the EU, close to three fifths (57.2%) of all tertiary education graduates in 2020 were women. In all EU Member States, more women graduated from tertiary education than men.
In 2020, the most frequently awarded degree in the EU was for management and administration.
Tertiary education graduates in science, mathematics, computing, engineering, manufacturing and construction (STEM), 2020
This article presents statistics on tertiary education (levels 5–8 of the international standard classification of education – ISCED) 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 tertiary educational institutions – follows 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 well-being of citizens. Some European universities are among the most prestigious in the world.
Many commentators predict that in the coming years there will be increased demand for highly skilled people. Driven by digital technology, jobs are becoming more flexible and complex. This has resulted in a growing number of employers seeking staff with the necessary capacities to manage complex information, think autonomously, be creative, use resources in a smart and efficient manner, as well as communicate effectively.
A relatively large number of students in tertiary education are internationally mobile and study abroad: an analysis of this phenomenon is available in a separate article.
Participation by level
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 is typically vocational (occupationally-specific) and designed to prepare students for the labour market, is not part of the education system in Bulgaria, Estonia, Greece, Lithuania, Romania and Finland, nor in Liechtenstein, Montenegro, North Macedonia, Serbia, or Bosnia and Herzegovina. It is also quite uncommon – accounting for 1.0 % or less of the total number of tertiary students – in several other EU Member States, namely Czechia, Germany, Croatia, Italy and Poland.
In the EU there were 18.0 million tertiary education students in 2020 (see Table 1). Germany – the most populous EU Member State – had 3.3 million tertiary education students in 2020, which was the highest number in the EU and equivalent to 18.2 % of the EU total. France (15.3 % of the total), Spain (11.9 %) and Italy (11.3 %) had the next largest tertiary student populations.
Among the 18.0 million tertiary education students in the EU:
- 7.3 % were following short-cycle tertiary courses;
- 59.7 % were studying for bachelor’s degrees;
- 29.4 % were studying for master’s degrees; and
- 3.6 % were studying for doctoral degrees.
Students of bachelor’s and master’s degrees accounted for 89.1 % of the total. Notably higher shares for these two levels were reported for Croatia, Poland (both 97.6 %), Italy (97.5 %), Lithuania (97.4 %) and Bulgaria (97.2 %); notably lower shares were recorded for Austria (78.4 %), France (77.7 %), Luxembourg (76.8 %) and Spain (74.1 %).
Short-cycle tertiary courses were most common in Spain and France where they accounted for around one fifth of all tertiary students (21.6 % and 19.9 % respectively); they were also relatively common in Latvia and Austria. In Turkey, short-cycle tertiary courses were even more common as more than one third (37.6 %) of all tertiary students were enrolled in such courses.
France, Luxembourg, Cyprus and Austria were the only EU Member States where fewer than 50 % of all tertiary students were studying for bachelor’s degrees. By contrast, in the Netherlands the share of tertiary students who were studying for bachelor’s degrees was 74.2 % and this share peaked at 85.6 % in Greece.
Around one tenth (10.5 %) of all tertiary students were studying for a master’s degrees in 2020 in Greece, with this share also below one fifth in Ireland and Spain. By contrast, higher shares (around two fifths) were recorded in Croatia and Cyprus.
Germany had by far the highest number of students studying for doctoral degrees in 2020 (182 800) – see Table 1. This was about twice the number of students studying for a doctoral degree in any of the other EU Member States; the next highest count was recorded in Spain (92 700). By far, the highest share of tertiary students studying for doctoral degrees in 2020 among the EU Member States was in Luxembourg (12.1 %) as the next highest share was in Czechia (6.6 %). The lowest shares of doctoral students in the total number of tertiary education students were observed in the Netherlands (1.8 %), Italy (1.6 %) and Malta (1.4 %).
Participation in tertiary education by sex
In 2020, women accounted for 54.0 % of all tertiary students in the EU. The share of women among tertiary students was:
- 48.5 % for those following short-cycle tertiary courses,
- 53.4 % for those studying for bachelor’s degrees,
- 57.2 % for those studying for master’s degrees, and
- 48.7 % for those studying for doctoral degrees.
As such, the majority of short-cycle tertiary students and doctoral students were men, while the majority of bachelor's and master's students were women.
In 2020, three fifths (60.2 %) of all tertiary students in Sweden were women, while the share was close to this level in Poland, Estonia and Slovakia. Women were also in a majority among tertiary students in all of the other EU Member States except for Greece (49.5 %) and Germany (49.2 %). In Turkey and Liechtenstein, female tertiary students were also in a minority.
- For short-cycle courses, 10 out of 21 EU Member States for which data are available had more male than female students in 2020.
- For bachelor’s degrees, Greece, Germany and Cyprus were the only EU Member States where there were more men than women studying at this educational level in 2020. The highest share of female students among those studying for bachelor’s degrees was recorded in Sweden (63.9 %).
- Among students studying for master’s degrees, women were in the majority in 2020 in all of the EU Member States. The highest female share was recorded in Cyprus, where women accounted for more than two thirds (68.8 %) of the total number of students.
- Men were in a majority among doctoral level students in 13 of the EU Member States. The highest share for men was in Luxembourg (57.0 %) while the highest share for women was in Cyprus (58.7 %).
Participation in tertiary education by field of education
Across the EU, more than one fifth (21.8 %) of all students in tertiary education in 2020 were studying business, administration or law. Women accounted for a majority of the total number of students within this field of education – see Figure 1. The second most common field of education was engineering, manufacturing and construction which accounted for 15.8 % of all tertiary education students. In this field, almost three quarters (73.2 %) of all students were male. Some 25.1 % of all tertiary education male students were studying in this field, compared with 7.8 % of female tertiary students studying in this field. The third largest field of study was health and welfare, with a 13.6 % share of all tertiary education students. In this field, women accounted for a large majority (71.9 %) of the total number of tertiary students. Nearly one tenth (9.8 %) of all tertiary education students were women studying in this field, compared with 3.8 % who were men studying in this field. The only other field of study to account for a double-digit share of tertiary education students was arts and humanities.
Among the remaining fields of study shown in Figure 1, there was a relatively high share of female students among those studying education and those studying arts and humanities or social sciences, journalism and information. By contrast, aside from engineering, manufacturing and construction, there was a relatively high share of men studying information and communication technologies.
Participation in tertiary education by type of institution
In the EU, the vast majority (79.7 %) of tertiary education students in 2020 were taught in public institutions  – see Figure 2.
- In 2020, all tertiary education students were studying in public institutions in Greece and Luxembourg.
- In 22 EU Member States (including Greece and Luxembourg), at least three quarters of tertiary education students were studying in public institutions in 2020.
- Somewhat lower majority shares of tertiary education students were studying in public institutions in 2020 in Poland (70.0 %) and Finland (52.5 %).
- In three EU Member States, a minority of tertiary education students were studying in public institutions in 2020:
- in Belgium, the share was just over two fifths, with students in private institutions almost exclusively in government-dependent private institutions;
- in Cyprus, the share was around one quarter, with students in private institutions exclusively in independent private institutions;
- in Latvia, the share was less than one tenth, with students in private institutions mainly in government-dependent private institutions, although independent private institutions did account for nearly one quarter of all tertiary students.
Approximately 4.2 million students graduated from tertiary education in the EU in 2020 (excluding Czechia). France (848 100) had the largest number of tertiary graduates in 2020, some way ahead of Germany (602 100). The relatively high number of graduates in France may, at least to some extent, reflect a shorter average course length.
As noted above, the majority of short-cycle tertiary students and doctoral students in 2020 in the EU were men, while the majority of bachelor's and master's students were women. The gender difference among tertiary students is reflected to some extent in the data for tertiary graduates.
- Despite men being in the majority among the short-cycle tertiary student population, there were more women than men graduating, with a ratio across the EU of 104 women for every 100 men.
- The ratio of women to men among graduates was highest for graduates of bachelor’s and master’s levels: there were 141 women who were graduates from bachelor’s or equivalent courses for every 100 men, while for master’s or equivalent courses the ratio was 138 women for every 100 men.
- The majority of doctoral or equivalent students were men and this was reinforced in terms of the number of graduates. There were 90 women among doctoral or equivalent graduates for every 100 men.
Among the EU Member States, the highest ratios of women to men within tertiary graduates in 2020 were observed in Latvia (189 women for every 100 men) and Poland (187 women for every 100 men). In all EU Member States, there were more women who graduated from tertiary education than men: the lowest ratio was in Germany (101 women for every 100 men). Among the non-EU member countries included in Figure 3, there were marginally fewer women who graduated from tertiary education than men in Switzerland (99 women for every 100 men), while in Liechtenstein, men were in a clear majority (51 women for every 100 men; 2019 data).
In 2020, an analysis of the number of graduates in the EU by field of education shows that one quarter (25.2 %) of all tertiary students had graduated in business, administration or law. The next two largest fields were engineering, manufacturing and construction (14.8 %) and health and welfare (13.5 %), followed by education, arts and humanities, and social sciences, journalism and information, all of which had shares just under 10.0 %.
In several fields of education, there was a remarkable variability in the distribution of tertiary graduates in 2020 across the EU Member States.
- The proportion of graduates in business, administration and law ranged from 15.7 % in Sweden to 38.6 % in Cyprus.
- For engineering, manufacturing and construction studies, the share of all graduates was below 10.0 % in five EU Member States, with Malta recording the lowest share (6.8 %). By contrast, Austria (20.7 %) and Germany (23.1 %) reported the highest shares.
- A similar situation was observed for graduates in health and welfare. The share of all graduates was below 10.0 % in five EU Member States, with Hungary recording the lowest share (5.1 %). By contrast, Denmark (20.6 %), Sweden (21.9 %) and Belgium (25.0 %) reported shares of more than one fifth.
- The share of tertiary graduates from the education field was below 5.0 % in France (4.0 %) and Portugal (4.1 %), while a share of 20.9 % was recorded for Cyprus.
Figure 4 extends the analysis of Table 2 by presenting not only an analysis by broad field of education, but also by the sex of the graduates. An analysis by sex of tertiary education graduates (as shown in Figure 4) is, unsurprisingly, quite similar to that for tertiary education students (as shown in Figure 1).
Within the EU, close to three fifths (57.2 %) of all tertiary education graduates in 2020 were women.
- Some 14.6 % of all tertiary graduates were women graduating from business, administration and law, while 10.6 % were men from the same field. Equally, around one tenth of graduates were men from engineering, manufacturing and construction (10.8 %) or women from health and welfare (10.0 %).
- Women outnumbered men among graduates from i) education, ii) health and welfare, iii) social sciences, journalism and information, iv) arts and humanities, v) business, administration and law, vi) natural sciences, mathematics and statistics, and vii) services. Note that women also outnumbered men among students for each of these fields, except for services (where male students were in the majority).
- Men outnumbered women among graduates from i) information and communication technologies, ii) engineering, manufacturing and construction, and iii) agriculture, forestry, fisheries and veterinary. Male students outnumbered female students in all three of these fields.
Leaving aside the category of ‘unknown’ field of study, the analysis by sex of students and graduates from different fields varied most for social sciences, journalism and information as well as for arts and humanities – compare Figures 1 and 4. In these two fields, there were 1.8 times as many female as male students, but 2.1 times as many women as men among the graduates. In nearly all fields, the ratio of women to men was higher among graduates than among students; agriculture, forestry, fisheries and veterinary was the only exception (other than the very small field of generic programmes and qualifications).
A more detailed analysis of field of study is presented in Figure 5, which shows the number of graduates with a bachelor’s or a master’s degree. While many subjects are offered at both bachelor’s and master’s levels, it is important to note that courses in some fields, for example medicine and law, may be offered in some EU Member States principally or exclusively as master’s courses. In these cases, the number of graduates at the bachelor’s level may be small or even zero.
In 2020, the most frequently awarded degree – based on detailed fields of education – was for management and administration; across the EU, some 210 700 people in this field graduated with a bachelor’s degree and 124 500 with a master’s degree. Nursing and midwifery was the second most common field for those graduating with a bachelor’s degree (93 700), followed by language acquisition (63 800) and training for pre-school teachers (61 800). By contrast, medicine was the second most frequently awarded degree among those graduating with a master’s degree (107 300).
Relative to the size of the population aged 20–29 years, the number of tertiary graduates in science, mathematics, computing, engineering, manufacturing and construction (referred to hereafter as STEM) in the EU increased in recent years. In 2014, the ratio was 18.5 per 1 000 people aged 20–29 years while in 2020 it was 21.0 per 1 000.
Figure 6 shows this ratio for male and female graduates in 2020. There were almost twice as many male as female STEM graduates in the EU: 27.7 per 1 000 male inhabitants aged 20–29 years for men and 14.0 per 1 000 female inhabitants aged 20–29 years for women. In relative terms, the gender gap for this field of education was most marked in Belgium (excluding the French Community of Belgium for short-cycle tertiary) and Austria, where the ratio of male graduates to men aged 20–29 years was 2.7 times as high as the equivalent ratio for female graduates. The narrowest gender gap for this indicator was observed in Romania (2019 data), where the ratio for male graduates was 1.2 times as high as the ratio for female graduates.
There were 1.4 million people teaching in tertiary education across the EU in 2020. Close to one third (32.5 %) of the tertiary education teaching staff in the EU were teaching in Germany, with more than one tenth in Spain (12.4 %).
In contrast to the teaching staff in schools, where women were in the majority, in 2020 a higher proportion of tertiary education teaching staff in the EU were men (56.4 %). Note that the countries in Figure 7 are ranked on the share of women among the teaching staff for the whole of tertiary education.
- The share of men among tertiary education teaching staff neared two thirds in Luxembourg (64.2 %) and was also at least 60.0 % in Greece, Malta, Czechia, Italy and Germany.
- Women accounted for a majority of the tertiary education teaching staff in Croatia, Bulgaria, Belgium, Romania, Finland, Ireland and Latvia, with the share peaking at 59.1 % in Lithuania.
Figure 7 provides information on the relative shares of men and women within tertiary education teaching staff in 2020. An analysis by level of education provides data for short-cycle tertiary education separate from the rest of tertiary education.
- For the EU (excluding Ireland, Croatia, Hungary and Portugal), the share of women within the teaching staff was higher for short-cycle tertiary education (52.1 %) than for the rest of tertiary education (42.8 %).
- Particularly high shares of women within the teaching staff for short-cycle tertiary education were observed in Belgium (84.3 %), Poland (67.2 %), Latvia (63.2 %) and Slovakia (61.4 %).
- Among the EU Member States for which the analysis by level of education is available (see Figure 7), Denmark, Germany and Sweden were the only ones where the share of women within the teaching staff for short-cycle tertiary education was lower than the equivalent share for the rest of tertiary education.
Source data for tables and graphs
The standards for international statistics on education are set by three international organisations:
- the United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) institute for statistics (UIS);
- the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD);
- Eurostat, the statistical office of the EU.
The 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, foreign language learning and tertiary graduates with credit mobility.
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 nine different levels of education.
Eurostat data by fields of education are classified according to the ISCED-F 2013 classification. The fields of education – as classified by ISCED-F 2013 – are broad domains, branches or areas of content covered by an education programme or qualification. The classification has a three-level hierarchy based on broad fields (the highest level), narrow fields (the second level) and detailed fields (the third level) of education.
Tables in this article use the following notation:
|Value in italics||estimate or provisional data;|
|Value is –||not relevant or not applicable;|
|Value is :||not available.|
Tertiary education builds on secondary education, providing learning activities in specialised fields of education. Tertiary education includes not only what is commonly understood as ‘academic’ education, but also includes advanced vocational or professional education. The content of programmes at tertiary level is more complex and advanced than at lower ISCED levels. One prerequisite of tertiary education is the successful completion of ISCED level 3 programmes that give direct access to first tertiary education programmes (access may also be possible from ISCED level 4 programmes). In addition to qualification requirements, entry into education programmes at these levels may depend on subject choice and/or grades achieved. Furthermore, it may be necessary to take and succeed in entrance examinations.
There is usually a clear hierarchy between qualifications granted by tertiary education programmes. The transition between programmes at tertiary level is, however, not always clearly distinguished and it may be possible to combine programmes and transfer credits from one programme to another. In certain cases, credits received from previously completed education programmes may also be counted towards the completion of a programme at a higher ISCED level. Nevertheless, the successful completion of ISCED level 7 is usually required for entry into ISCED level 8.
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.
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).
In 2014, the Erasmus programme was superseded by the EU’s programme for education, training, youth and sport, referred to as ‘Erasmus+’. The programme currently covers the period 2021–2027 and has an overall budget of €26.2 billion. This is nearly double the funding compared to its predecessor programme (2014–2020).
Direct access to
- According to the UOE classification, the distinction between public and private is made according to whether a public agency or a private entity has the overall control of the institution and not according to which sector provides the majority of the funding. If a private institution receives the majority of funding from a public agency it is considered to be dependent; if not it is independent.
- Participation in education and training (educ_part)
- Education personnel (educ_uoe_per)
- Education and training outcomes (educ_outc)
- 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 – 2016 edition
- International Standard Classification of Education (ISCED) 2011
- 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 – 2019 edition
- UNESCO OECD Eurostat (UOE) joint data collection – methodology
- Regulation (EC) No 452/2008 of 23 April 2008 concerning the production and development of statistics on education and lifelong learning
- Commission Regulation (EU) No 912/2013 of 23 September 2013 as regards statistics on education and training systems
- Summaries of EU Legislation: statistics on education and lifelong learning