The OECD has released its 2019 Education at a Glance report, comparing the education systems of the OECD's 36 member countries, including Australia, as well as 10 other countries.
For Australia’s higher education sector, the news was mostly good, with the data revealing a higher intake of foreign students and higher tertiary student employment levels.
The report found that despite high tuition fees, Australia’s intake of foreign students is up to seven times larger than other OECD nations, making it one of the most attractive destinations for international students globally.
International students make up 21% of all students enrolled in tertiary education in Australia, compared to 6% on average across OECD countries. Although they make up a small share of students in bachelor’s or equivalent programmes (14%), they represent a significant share of those enrolled in master’s (48%) and doctoral programmes (32%).
Professor John Fischetti, interim Pro Vice-Chancellor at the University of Newcastle, and an expert on education leadership and equity in education, said Australian education “ranks quite well” in this year’s OECD update.
“Participants in tertiary education are employed at higher levels, earn higher incomes and are more resilient in a transforming economy,” Professor Fischetti said.
“Australian women have also increased their participation in tertiary education, and widened the gap with men (59% as compared with 44%).”
However, the report found a growing gender gap in tertiary attainment, which has been increasing over the last decade. In 2018, 59% of young women in Australia were tertiary educated compared to 44% of young men.
There is also a trend towards lower job-attainment for women, with the report showing the employment rate for younger women (aged 25-34) without upper secondary education at 43%, compared to 69% for their male peers.
However, but the disparities narrow as educational attainment increases.
The gender gap in employment shrinks to 17 percentage points among adults with upper secondary or post-secondary non-tertiary education and to 11 percentage points among those with tertiary education
Drain of highly educated specialist ‘inevitable’
Associate Professor Jihyun Lee of UNSW Sydney is an expert on education measurement and large scale education statistics, and has spent time researching at the OECD in Paris.
She said that while there is an “abundance of goods news” for Australia in the latest version of Education at a Glance, a couple of concerns continue to grow.
"Currently, Australian universities depend on international students for their survival of higher-degree programmes,” Associate Professor Lee said.
“While the Australian government provides up to four years of post-degree stay for international students, it is inevitable that Australia faces a drain of highly educated specialists.”
Associate Professor Lee said this issue is further complicated by a lower proportion of doctoral programme graduates in the field of Engineering, Manufacturing and Construction in Australia (17%), compared to other industrialised countries such as Sweden (25%), Korea (24%), Japan (23%) and Canada (21%).
"The field of Information and Communication Technologies shows a similar picture,” she said.
“Australia can do better in attracting younger generations to be trained at the highest level in the fields that will be more in demand in the near future.”