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Disparity in education between OECD member states

September 12, 2017

More and more young people are getting university degrees. However, the OECD's "Education at a Glance" study reveals that when it comes to careers in the sciences, gender equality is still a long way away.

Students in a lecture at Göttingen's Georg-August-University
Image: picture-alliance/dpa/S. Pförtner

The Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) published its extensive annual education study on Tuesday. "Education at a Glance" covers the state of education around the world, including the 35 OECD countries, as well as a number of partner countries like Brazil, China, India, Russia, Saudi Arabia and South Africa.

By providing key information on "the impact of learning across countries; the financial and human resources invested in education… and the learning environment and organization of schools," the OECD aims to help governments improve their schools and universities and make them more accessible to all.

In an editorial published along with the study's results, OECD Secretary General Angel Gurria states that education is the "foundation for promoting development, reducing economic disparities and creating a society of inclusiveness."

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German education gets an A on OECD report card

Germany has highest number of STEM students

The number of young people receiving tertiary (university level) education has been growing constantly. In 2000, an average of 26 percent of people between the ages of 25 and 34 had attained tertiary education levels in OECD countries. This number grew to 43 percent in 2016. In Germany, only around 30 percent of young people enroll in tertiary education. That number is lower than the OECD average because Germany has a high quality vocational program that sees many students enroll in professional training with a company after grade 10.

Number of STEM students in OECD countries and in Germany

While tertiary enrollment in STEM (Science Technology, Engineering and Mathmatics) fields is relatively low on average in OECD countries – with 16 percent of students in engineering and construction and 6 percent in sciences, math and statistics – it is remarkably high in Germany. More than one third of students choose to study in one of these fields.

"A lot of the German economy is based on manufacturing, and German engineering is famous across the world," Heino von Meyer, head of the OECD Berlin Centre, told DW. "Many foreign students come to German universities to focus on STEM subjects as well."

Fields of education still clearly divided by gender lines

Women, however, are still underrepresented. In Germany, only 28 percent of young people who enroll in the STEM fields are female. OECD-wide, the difference varies between STEM subjects. While there is gender parity in the natural sciences, mathematics and statistics, only 24 percent of engineering students in OECD countries are female. Among young people studying to become teachers, the reverse is true: 78 percent of them are female.

Proportions of female students in certain fields

"The persistent differences in the way men and women select their future careers are disturbing," Gurria states in the study's editorial.

Teachers: Old, underpaid – and female

One reason why the high number of female teachers is a problem is that teachers' salaries aren't very high compared to other professions that require a university degree. They range between 78 percent and 94 percent of salaries of other full time workers with a tertiary education. Salaries are lowest for elementary school teachers – and this is also where the number of women is highest.

"It sends the wrong signal that salaries are significantly lower at the primary level compared to the secondary level," von Meyer said. "It's right at the start of a child's education that we need the best teachers!"

Educators across OECD countries are also getting older on average. While this trend isn't true for Germany, German teachers are still among the oldest in all of the OECD countries.

Access to education for everyone

For the first time, the study includes a chapter on the Sustainable Development Goals (SDG) set by world leaders. Goal number four is ensuring that "every adult has an equal opportunity to a quality education." But the disparities between OECD countries in achieving this goal are "substantial," especially when it comes to gender equality in achieving basic skills like literacy.

The UN developed the SDG in 2015. As of 2017, 103 million youth worldwide lack basic literacy skills and more than 60 percent of them are female.

Carla Bleiker
Carla Bleiker Editor, channel manager and reporter focusing on US politics and science@cbleiker