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University pays off for women graduates

Higher education boosts female salaries in Britain more than in 16 other countries. Biddy Passmore reports

Not only should you give your daughter Lego rather than dolls , you should also move heaven and earth to get her into university.

A new international survey shows that British female university graduates earn 110 per cent more than their counterparts who did not study after leaving school at 18. The difference is the biggest of any of the 17 countries covered by the survey, including Portugal and Ireland.

The earnings differential is large for British men as well - a male university graduate earns just over 60 per cent more than his school-leaver counterpart. But this finding is more in line with other countries.

The Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development report shows that women, clearly recognising the benefits of study, now form the majority of entrants to tertiary education. In Britain, they constitute half the new entrants to university and slightly more than half of those entering other forms of tertiary education.

But women in developed countries still tend to be clustered in stereotyped subjects. They are over-represented in fields related to health, education and social and behavioural sciences and under-represented in areas like natural sciences and engineering.

Britain's HE system emerges well from the study, which shows that the massive expansion of the past decade has been achieved without a high drop-out rate. Between 6 and 13 per cent of students fail to complete their studies in the United Kingdom, (fourth in the league behind Australia, the US and Canada), compared with nearly a third in Germany and a staggering 64 per cent in Italy.

In general, however, the study shows the familiar UK picture of a gulf between the high achievers at the top and poor achievers at the bottom, both at school and in the population at large.

In mathematics, English 13-year-olds show wide variations in performance but more than 20 per cent score substantially below the average for all the OECD countries taking part in the study. In Japan and Korea, although the achievement range is wide, the overall standard is so high that more than three-quarters of all students score above the international average.

The UK still lags behind other countries for the proportion of young people staying on at school beyond 16. Three-quarters are still in education at the age of 17, many more than a decade ago but still well behind countries such as France, Finland and Sweden where the figure is 90 per cent or more.

A higher school-leaving age is not associated with higher drop-out rates, the report shows. Rather the reverse: countries with a higher upper limit, like Belgium, tend to be more successful in keeping young people at school.

Education Policy Analysis 1997 and Education at a Glance OECD Indicators 1997 are available, price Pounds 5 and Pounds 27 respectively, from the Stationery Office Ltd, PO Box 276, London SW8 5DT (postal orders with cheque including Pounds 2.94 postage) or telephone orders with credit card on 0171 873 9090.

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