Boost education investment to tackle inequality of opportunity, says OECD


16/09/2021 - Governments should boost their investment in education in order to tackle the sources of inequality of opportunity. This would help create a more level playing field for people of all ages to acquire the skills that power better jobs and better lives, according to a new OECD report.

Education at a Glance 2021 says that one in five adults across the OECD has not attained upper secondary education and in some countries, a significant share of children leave school early. In 2019, at least one in ten school-aged youth were not in school in about a quarter of OECD countries. But some countries have made progress: between 2005 and 2019, the out-of-school rate at upper secondary level dropped by more than 15 percentage points in Mexico, Portugal and the Russian Federation.

Socio-economic status has a greater impact on the literacy skills of 15-year-olds than gender or country of origin, but some education systems are far more resilient to social disadvantage than others, says the report. Socio-economic status also tends to influence the programme orientation students pursue, with those without tertiary-educated parents more likely to pursue vocational tracks at upper secondary level. Those without upper secondary education face disadvantages in the labour market. In 2020, the unemployment rate of young adults that had not completed upper secondary education was almost twice as high as those with higher qualifications.

“The COVID-19 pandemic has hit our health, economic, and social sectors hard and exposed some systemic weaknesses hampering genuine social mobility,” said OECD Secretary-General Mathias Cormann, launching the report in Paris. “Equality of opportunity is a key ingredient for a strong and cohesive democratic society. Unlike policies that address the consequences, education can tackle the sources of inequality of opportunity. Boosting investment in better and more relevant education will be key to helping countries deliver long-term economic and social prosperity.”

Immigrant background tends to influence learning trajectories while employment prospects of foreign-born adults vary greatly across countries, finds the report. In almost all countries with available data, the upper secondary completion rate of first or second generation immigrants was lower than that for students without an immigrant background. Labour market outcomes vary greatly for foreign-born adults with different levels of education, reflecting the supply and demand for different skills, the difficulties tertiary-educated foreign-born adults face in gaining recognition for their education and experience earned abroad, and lower wage expectations of foreign workers in some countries.

Gender disparities also persist. Boys are more likely than girls to repeat a grade and underperform in reading, and less likely to complete upper secondary education. Boys are usually overrepresented in vocational paths and less likely to enter and graduate from tertiary education. Women also outnumber men in participation rates to formal adult learning. Yet they remain less likely to be employed and earn less than men across all levels of educational attainment and OECD countries, even among those having graduated from the same field of study.

Investment in education is key, but rising educational spending has not generally led to improved outcomes, suggesting that countries need to look harder at how to invest resources most effectively, and to match resources with needs. On average across countries, expenditure on educational institutions amounted to approximately USD 9 300 per student at pre-primary level in 2018; USD 10 500 at primary, secondary and post-secondary non tertiary level; and USD 17 100 at tertiary level. The public sector funds 90% of total expenditure on primary and secondary institutions on average, often compulsory in most OECD countries, and 66% at tertiary level.

Two-thirds of countries reported increasing public expenditure to education in 2020 to support the educational response to COVID-19 and about three quarters reported increasing it in 2021. Sustaining these investments will be critical to reverse learning losses, develop teachers’ capacity to tailor learning strategies to individual students’ needs, and leverage investments made to integrate technology in education. 

Lifelong learning has become more critical for adults to upskill and reskill in a changing world. Yet, more than half of adults did not participate in adult learning in 2016, and the pandemic further reduced opportunities to do so. Educators need to work more closely with other government sectors and business to help promote flexible pathways in and out of education that evolve alongside labour market demands, according to the report.

Education at a Glance 2021 includes a special spotlight report: The State of Global Education – 18 months into the pandemic. The reportreveals that the extent of lost learning opportunities in the classroom has been significant in many countries. The higher the education level, the longer schools were fully closed on average. The number of days of full school closure represents roughly 28% of total instruction days over a typical academic year at pre-primary and more than 56% at upper secondary level on average across OECD countries. This has consequences on equitable learning: while the majority of education systems around the world shifted to remote learning, students from disadvantaged backgrounds may find it more difficult to study effectively from home.

Education at a Glance provides comparable national statistics measuring the state of education worldwide. The report analyses the education systems of the OECD’s 38 member countries, as well as of Argentina, Brazil, China, India, Indonesia, the Russian Federation, Saudi Arabia and South Africa.

Further information on Education at a Glance, including country notes and key data, is available at:


Journalists are invited to contact OECD Director for Education and Skills Andreas Schleicher (tel. + 33 1 45 24 18 97) or the OECD’s Media Office (tel. + 33 1 45 24 97 00).


Working with over 100 countries, the OECD is a global policy forum that promotes policies to preserve individual liberty and improve the economic and social well-being of people around the world.


Related Documents