Global Trends in Higher Education in S&E

In the 1990s, many countries worldwide expanded their higher education systems as well as access to higher education in their country. At the same time, flows of students worldwide increased, particularly from developing countries to more developed countries, and from Europe and Asia to the United States. More recently, a number of countries adopted policies to encourage the return of students who studied abroad, to attract foreign students, or both.

Educational Attainment

Educational attainment of the U.S. population has long been among the highest in the world, but other countries are now catching up (OECD 2006). The United States continues to have the highest percentage of the population ages 25–64 with a bachelor’s degree or higher, although among the younger age group (ages 25–34), the United States (30%) lags behind Norway (37%), Israel (34%), the Netherlands (32%), and South Korea (31%) in the percentage of the population with at least a bachelor’s degree (figure 2-33figure.; appendix table 2-35Excel.).

The percentage of the population with postsecondary degrees of any sort increased greatly in Europe and in many Asian countries over the past decade. Many other countries, including Russia, Israel, Belgium, Canada, Finland, and Sweden have traditionally had relatively high percentages of the population with education levels broadly comparable to U.S. associate’s degrees (tertiary type B in international classification). Recently, increases in population shares with this level of education have occurred in France, Ireland, Japan, and South Korea, among other countries; these increases are often accompanied by increases in those with bachelor’s level qualifications (tertiary type A) or better. In total postsecondary education attainment of the population ages 25 to 64 (including 2-year and 4-year or higher degrees), the United States ranks 4th (behind Russia, Israel, and Canada), and it ranks 10th (behind Russia, Canada, Japan, Israel, South Korea, Sweden, Belgium, Ireland, and Norway) in the percentage of the younger population (ages 25–34) with any postsecondary degree (appendix table 2-35Excel.).

First University Degrees in S&E Fields

In 2004, almost 11 million students worldwide earned a first university degree[19] with almost 4 million of these in S&E fields (appendix table 2-37Excel.). These worldwide totals include only countries for which relatively recent data are available (primarily countries in the Asian, European, and American regions), and therefore are likely an underestimation. Asian universities accounted for 1.7 million of the world’s S&E first university degrees in 2004, more than 700,000 of them in engineering (figure 2-34figure.). Students across Europe (including Eastern Europe and Russia) earned more than 1 million S&E degrees, and students in North and Central America more than 600,000 in 2004.

In the United States, S&E degrees are about one-third of U.S. bachelor’s degrees. In several countries/economies around the world, the proportion of first degrees in S&E fields, especially engineering, is higher. More than half of first degrees were in S&E fields in Japan (63%), China (56%), Singapore (59%), Laos (57%), and Thailand (69%). Many of these countries/economies traditionally awarded a large proportion of their first degrees in engineering. In the United States, about 5% of all bachelor’s degrees are in engineering. However, in Asia, 20% are in engineering, and in many other countries worldwide, more than 10% are in engineering. About 12% of all bachelor’s degrees in the United States and worldwide are in natural sciences (physical, biological, computer, and agricultural sciences, and mathematics).

The number of first university S&E degrees awarded in China, South Korea, and the United Kingdom more than doubled between 1985 and 2005; those in the United States generally increased; and those in Japan decreased in recent years (appendix table 2-38Excel.).In China, the number of first university degrees in engineering more than doubled between 2000 and 2004 and quadrupled over the past two decades (figure 2-35figure.). Degrees in the physical and biological sciences also greatly increased in China in those years. (See sidebars "Recent Developments in Higher Education in China" and "Recent Developments in Higher Education in India") In South Korea, the number of first university degrees in engineering doubled between 1995 and 2005 and increased almost threefold between 1985 and 2005. In both the United States and United Kingdom, the number of first university degrees in mathematics/computer sciences and social/behavioral sciences generally increased over the past two decades, while the number awarded in physical/biological sciences and engineering dipped in recent years (although in the United States, degrees in those disciplines have since rebounded). In Japan, the number of first university S&E degrees rose in the 1990s but decreased from 2002 through 2005. In Germany, the number of first university S&E degrees dropped from 1997 through 2001 but increased in recent years.

Global Comparison of Participation Rates by Sex

Women earned half or more of first university degrees in S&E in many countries around the world in 2004, including the United States, Canada, Greece, Portugal, Panama, and several countries in Asia, the middle East, and Eastern Europe. A number of countries in Europe are not far behind, with more than 40% of first university S&E degrees earned by women. In many Asian and African countries, women generally earn about one-third or less of the first university degrees awarded in S&E fields (appendix table 2-39Excel.). In the United States, Canada, Japan, and many smaller countries, over half of the S&E first university degrees earned by women are in the social and behavioral sciences. In a few countries (e.g., El Salvador, South Korea, and several countries in Eastern Europe), more than 40% of S&E first university degrees earned by women are in engineering, compared with 6% in the United States.

Global Comparison of S&E Doctoral Degrees

Almost 150,000 S&E doctoral degrees were earned worldwide in 2004. Of these, more than 80% were earned outside the United States (appendix table 2-40Excel.). The United States awarded the largest number of S&E doctoral degrees (more than 26,000), followed by Russia (16,000), China (almost 15,000), and Germany (more than 12,000). Close to 40% of these S&E doctoral degrees in the United States and worldwide were earned in the physical/biological sciences. Figure 2-36figure. shows the breakdown of S&E doctoral degrees by major region and selected fields.

Women earned 37% of S&E doctoral degrees awarded in the United States and about 34% of those earned worldwide in 2004. The percentage of S&E doctoral degrees earned by women varied widely by country/economy, from less than 20% in South Korea, Taiwan, Japan, Iran, and Ghana, to more than 50% in Kyrgyzstan, the Philippines, Uganda, Portugal, Latvia, and Lithuania (appendix table 2-41Excel.).

The number of S&E doctoral degrees awarded in the United Kingdom and in many Asian countries rose steeply in the past two decades (appendix table 2-42 and 2-43Excel.). The United States awards the largest number of natural sciences and engineering doctoral degrees, but China is catching up (figure 2-37figure.). In the United Kingdom, as well as in Germany and the United States, most S&E doctoral degrees are in the physical and biological sciences. The numbers of doctoral degrees in those fields stagnated or declined from the late 1990s through 2005, although the number of these degrees in the United States experienced a recent upturn. Most of the recent growth in S&E doctoral degrees in the United Kingdom was due to an increase in the number of social and behavioral sciences doctorates.

In Asia, China was the largest producer of S&E doctoral degrees (almost 15,000). The number of S&E doctorates awarded in China rose more than sixfold between 1993 and 2004, and the number of S&E doctorates awarded in South Korea, Taiwan, and Japan also greatly increased. In China, South Korea, Japan, and Taiwan, more than half of S&E doctorates were awarded in engineering. In India, the number of S&E doctoral degrees rose more modestly, although there was still a 58% increase from 1985 through 2003, and most doctorates were awarded in the physical and biological sciences (appendix table 2-43Excel.).

Global Student Mobility

International migration of students and highly skilled workers expanded in the past two decades, and countries are increasingly competing for foreign students. In particular, migration of students occurred from developing countries to the more developed countries, and from Europe and Asia to the United States. Some migrate temporarily for education, whereas others remain permanently. Some of the factors that influence the decision to migrate are economic opportunities, research opportunities, research funding, and climate for innovation in the country of destination (OECD 2004).

The population of individuals ages 20–24 (a proxy for the college-age population) decreased in Europe, the United States, China, and Japan in the 1990s and is projected to continue decreasing in Europe and Japan (appendix table 2-44Excel.). Some countries expanded recruitment of foreign students as their own populations of college-age students decreased, both for attraction of highly skilled workers and also for increased revenue for colleges and universities. (See sidebar "Transnational Higher Education.")

The U.S. share of foreign students worldwide declined in recent years, although the United States remains the destination of the largest number of foreign students worldwide (both undergraduate and graduate) of all Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) countries (figure 2-38figure.). In 2004, the United States received 22% of foreign students worldwide, down from 25% in 2000 (OECD 2006). Other countries that are among the top destinations for foreign students include the United Kingdom (11%), Germany (10%), and France (9%). Although they have lower numbers of foreign students than the United States, several other countries have higher percentages of higher education students (both undergraduate and graduate) who are foreign. In Australia 17% of students in higher education are foreign; in Switzerland and the United Kingdom, 13%; and in Austria, 11%, compared with 3% in the United States. Many countries (the United Kingdom, Germany, France, and New Zealand) recently instituted policies to help facilitate immigration of foreign students (Suter and Jandl 2006). Major policy efforts in Europe promoted increased international mobility of students. In the European Union, a substantial number of foreign students come from other European Union countries, but large numbers are also from Eastern Europe, Africa, and Asia, especially China and India (Kelo, Teichler, and Wächter 2006; Suter and Jandl 2006).

Foreign student enrollment in the United Kingdom increased in the past decade. The proportion of foreign students studying S&E fields in the United Kingdom also increased, especially at the graduate level, with increasing flows of students from China and India. From 1994 to 2005, foreign students increased from 29% to 43% of all graduate students studying S&E in the United Kingdom. In graduate engineering, foreign student enrollment more than doubled from 9,300 (35% of enrollment) to 21,400 (55% of enrollment) (figure 2-39figure.; appendix table 2-45Excel.). Students from China, Greece, India, and Pakistan accounted for most of the increase in foreign graduate engineering enrollment. The prime minister’s current Initiative for International Education calls for attracting an additional 100,000 international students by 2011 and provides about $48 million in funding to increase the number of international students in the United Kingdom. It also calls for diversifying the countries from which they draw students and also maintaining quality. The previous initiative (which exceeded its goals), called for increasing the number of students by 75,000 between 1999 and 2005. An increase in foreign students results in revenue for higher education institutions. Additionally, foreign students are allowed to work in the United Kingdom for up to 12 months after graduation under certain circumstances (British Council 2007).

About 100,000 foreign students studied in Japanese universities in 2005, almost 60,000 of them in S&E fields. Foreign S&E student enrollment in Japan is concentrated at the undergraduate level, accounting for 69% of all foreign S&E students. Foreign undergraduates, however, represent only 3% of all undergraduate S&E students. Although smaller in number, foreign graduate students account for 13% of graduate S&E students in Japan. About 18,000 foreign S&E graduate students were enrolled in Japanese universities in 2005, more than half of them from China (appendix table 2-46Excel.).

Foreign students are an increasing share of enrollment in Canadian universities. Foreign S&E students accounted for about 7% of undergraduate and 23% of graduate S&E enrollment in Canada in 2004, up from 5% and 22% in 1994. At both the undergraduate and graduate levels, foreign S&E students are higher percentages of students in mathematics/computer sciences and engineering than they are in other fields. Asian countries/economies were the top places of origin of foreign S&E graduate and undergraduate students in Canada. China alone accounts for 19% of foreign S&E graduate students and 15% of foreign S&E undergraduate students in Canada. The United States is also among the top countries of origin of foreign students, accounting for 5% of foreign S&E graduate students and 10% of foreign S&E undergraduate students in Canada (appendix table 2-47Excel.).

Australia actively recruited foreign students in recent years. Foreign students accounted for 15% of S&E undergraduate and 32% of S&E graduate students in Australian universities in 2005 (appendix table 2-48Excel.). At both the undergraduate and graduate levels, foreign S&E students are concentrated in mathematics/computer sciences and engineering. About three quarters of foreign students (in all fields) in Australia are from Asia, mainly China and India (IIE 2007).

International Comparison of Foreign Doctoral Degree Recipients

As in the United States, foreign students are a large share of S&E doctoral degree recipients in the United Kingdom. In 2005, 42% of S&E doctorates from the United Kingdom and 41% of S&E[20] doctorates from U.S. universities were awarded to foreign students (both permanent and temporary visa holders). In both countries, foreign students accounted for more than 60% of the doctorates awarded in engineering. Foreign students account for about 10% of S&E doctorate recipients in Japan and 25% in Germany (figure 2-40figure.; appendix table 2-49Excel.).


[19] A first university degree refers to the completion of a terminal undergraduate degree program. These degrees are classified as level 5A in the International Standard Classification of Education, although individual countries use different names for the first terminal degree (e.g., laureata in Italy, diplome in Germany, maitrise in France, and bachelor's degree in the United States and in Asian countries).

[20] Excluding doctorates in medical/health fields.

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