By Marcus Leach

People with university degrees have suffered far fewer job losses during the global economic crisis than those who left school without qualifications, according to the latest edition of the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development's (OECD) annual Education at a Glance.

According to the OECD good education and skills are crucial to improving a person’s economic and social prospects.

Unemployment rates among university graduates stood at 4.4% on average across OECD countries in 2009. But people who did not complete high school faced unemployment rates of 11.5%, up from 8.7% the year before. This adds to the huge problem of youth unemployment that today exceeds 17% in the OECD area.

“The cost to individuals and society of young people leaving school without a qualification keeps rising,” said OECD Secretary-General Angel Gurría.

“We must avoid the risk of a lost generation by all means. Despite strained public budgets, governments must keep up their investment to maintain quality in education, especially for those most at risk.

“Investment in education is not only about money, it’s also an investment in people and an investment in the future.”

Based on current graduation trends, 82% of young people today will complete upper secondary education, but those who do not will face ever greater challenges in entering and staying in the job market.

Over fifty per cent of 15 to 19 year-olds who are not in school are unemployed or out of the labour force. In most countries, youth not in employment, education or training receive no welfare support. And compared with older age groups, they are twice as likely to give up looking for work and lose touch with the labour market entirely.

Governments therefore need to invest in education. In the long-run, their budgets will benefit from investment in education. The better educated are less likely to need unemployment benefits or welfare assistance, and pay more tax when they enter the job market.

A man with a tertiary education will pay back an average USD 91 000 in income taxes and social contributions over his working life,over and above what the government pays for his degree.

Education pays for individuals, too: the gross earnings premium for an individual with a tertiary degree exceeds USD 300 000 for men and USD 200 000 for women across the OECD.

The OECD report also illustrates how the global talent pool is changing: the more educated workforces of Japan and the United States, which together have nearly half of all tertiary-educated adults in the OECD area (47%), have given them a head-start in many high-skill areas.

But the picture is changing — at present, one in three university-educated retirees resides in the U.S. but only one in five university graduates entering the workforce does. Conversely, while only 5% of adults in China have a tertiary degree, because of its population size, the country now ranks second behind the U.S. and ahead of Japan in the percent of the population with tertiary attainment among OECD and G20 countries.

Education at a Glance provides comparable national statistics measuring the state of education worldwide. This year’s report includes indicators on the human and financial resources invested in education, on how education systems operate and evolve, and on the returns to educational investments.

For the first time, it includes analysis of education systems in Brazil, China, India, Indonesia, Russia and South Africa.

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