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Chapter 2. Higher Education in Science and Engineering

International S&E Higher Education

In the 1990s, many countries expanded their higher education systems and access to higher education. At the same time, flows of students worldwide increased. More recently, a number of countries have adopted policies to encourage the return of students who studied abroad, to attract foreign students, or both.

Higher Education Expenditures

Increasingly, governments around the world have come to regard movement toward a knowledge-based economy as key to economic progress. Realizing that this requires a well-trained workforce, they have invested in upgrading and expanding their higher education systems and broadening participation. In most instances, government spending underwrites these initiatives. One indicator of the importance of higher education is the percentage of a nation's resources devoted to higher education, as measured by expenditures on tertiary education (education beyond high school) as a percentage of gross domestic product (GDP). In 2007, U.S. expenditures on tertiary education as a percentage of GDP were double the OECD average. The United States, Canada, and Korea spent the highest percentage of GDP on higher education (appendix table 2-30).

Another indicator of the growing importance of higher education is the change in expenditures for higher education over time. Expenditures for tertiary education rose more in the United States than in many other OECD countries between 1995 and 2000, but less in the United States than in other OECD countries between 2000 and 2007. From 1995 to 2000, educational expenditures in the United States increased faster than the OECD average and faster than most OECD countries. From 2000 to 2007, educational expenditures in the United States increased at a rate similar to the OECD average. During this period, several countries, including the United Kingdom and Poland, exceeded the OECD average increase in expenditures (appendix table 2-30).

Higher education funding data can vary between countries for reasons unrelated to actual expenditures, such as changes in measurement, prevalence of public versus private institutions (private institutions are much more prevalent in the United States than in other countries), types and levels of government funding included, and types and levels of education included. In several European countries, governments plan to cut their investments in higher education as a result of the global recession and fiscal crisis; the results of these policies remain to be seen.

Educational Attainment

Higher education in the United States expanded greatly after World War II and, for several decades, the United States' population led the world in educational attainment. In the 1990s, many countries in Europe and Asia also began to expand their higher education systems. Although the United States continues to be among those countries with the highest percentage of the population ages 25–64 with a bachelor's degree or higher, several other countries have surpassed the United States in the percentage of the younger population (ages 25–34) with a bachelor's degree or higher (figure 2-26; appendix table 2-31).[25]

First University Degrees in S&E Fields

More than 14 million students worldwide earned first university degrees[26] in 2008, with about 5 million of these in S&E fields (appendix table 2-32). These worldwide totals include only countries for which relatively recent data are available (primarily countries in Asia, Europe, and the Americas) and are, therefore, an underestimation. Asian universities accounted for 2.4 million of the world's S&E first university degrees in 2008, more than 1 million of these in engineering. Students across Europe (including Eastern Europe and Russia) earned more than 1.2 million S&E degrees, and students in North and Central America earned nearly 700,000 in 2008.

In several countries/economies around the world, the proportion of first university degrees in S&E fields was higher than in the United States. More than half of first university degrees in Japan and China were in S&E fields, compared with about one-third in the United States. The disparity was especially large in engineering.[27] China has traditionally awarded a large proportion of its first university degrees in engineering, although the percentage has declined in recent years (appendix table 2-33). In the United States, about 4% of all bachelor's degrees are in engineering, compared with 19% in Asia, and approximately one-third in China (appendix table 2-32). About 11% of all bachelor's degrees awarded in the United States and worldwide are in natural sciences (physical, biological, computer, and agricultural sciences, and mathematics).

The number of S&E first university degrees awarded in China and Taiwan more than doubled between 2000 and 2008, and those in the United States and many other countries generally increased. Those awarded in Japan, France, and Spain decreased in recent years (appendix table 2-33). Natural sciences and engineering degrees account for most of the increase in S&E first university degrees in China. The number of natural sciences and engineering first university degrees in China rose sharply from 2002 to 2008, and more than tripled between 2000 and 2008 (figure 2-27). In comparison, the number awarded in Germany, Japan, South Korea, the United Kingdom, and the United States remained relatively flat. In China, degrees awarded increased faster than the population, which is also growing. In Japan and Europe degree trends may be influenced by declining populations.

In 1999, 29 European countries, through the Bologna Declaration, initiated a system of reforms in higher education in Europe. The goal of the Bologna Process is to harmonize certain aspects of higher education within participating countries so that degrees are comparable, credits are transferable, and students, teachers, and researchers can move freely from institution to institution across national borders (for information on reforms affecting degree awards in Europe, see sidebar "An Update on the Bologna Process"). The Bologna Process is also stimulating discussions about higher education in the United States (Adelman 2009).

S&E First University Degrees by Sex

Women earned half or more of first university degrees in S&E in many countries around the world in 2008, including the United States and a number of smaller countries. Several large 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 2-34).

In Canada, Japan, the United States, and many smaller countries, more than half of the S&E first university degrees earned by women were in the social and behavioral sciences. In South Korea, nearly half of the S&E first university degrees earned by women were in engineering, a much higher proportion than in Europe and the United States.

Global Comparison of S&E Doctoral Degrees

About 194,000 S&E doctoral degrees were earned worldwide in 2008. The United States awarded the largest number of S&E doctoral degrees of any country (about 33,000),[28] followed by China (about 28,000), Russia (almost 15,000), Germany (about 11,000), and the United Kingdom (about 9,500) (appendix table 2-35). About 55,000 S&E doctoral degrees were earned in the European Union.

Women earned 41% of S&E doctoral degrees awarded in the United States in 2008, about the same percentage earned by women in Australia, Canada, the European Union, and Mexico. In the United States, women earned nearly half of the S&E doctoral degrees awarded to U.S. citizens and permanent residents.[29] Women earned more than half of S&E doctoral degrees in Portugal and less than one-quarter of S&E doctoral degrees in the Netherlands, South Korea, and Taiwan (appendix table 2-36).

The number of S&E doctoral degrees awarded in China, Italy, and the United States has risen steeply in recent years; the number awarded in Russia increased considerably between 2002 and 2007, but decreased sharply in 2008 (appendix tables 2-37 and 2-38). Until 2006, the United States awarded the largest number of natural sciences and engineering doctoral degrees but, in 2007, China surpassed the United States (figure 2-28). In the United States, as well as in France, Germany, Italy, Spain, Switzerland, and the United Kingdom, the largest numbers of S&E doctoral degrees were awarded in the physical and biological sciences. The number of doctoral degrees awarded in S&E stagnated or declined in many of these countries between 2000 and 2004, although that number increased in later years in Italy, Switzerland, and the United States (appendix table 2-37).

In Asia, China was the largest producer of S&E doctoral degrees. As China's capacity for advanced S&E education increased, the number of S&E doctorates awarded rose from about 2,700 in 1994 to almost 28,500 in 2008 (appendix table 2-38), a substantially faster rate of growth when compared to the number of doctorates earned by Chinese citizens in the United States during the same period (figure 2-29). In 2007, the Chinese State Council Academic Degrees Committee announced that China would begin to limit admissions to doctoral programs and would focus more on quality of graduates (Mooney 2007). The number of S&E doctorates awarded in India, Japan, South Korea, and Taiwan also rose from 1994 to 2008, but at a lower rate. In China, Japan, South Korea, and Taiwan, more than half of S&E doctorates were awarded in engineering. In India, almost three-quarters of the S&E doctorates were awarded in the physical and biological sciences (appendix table 2-38).

Global Student Mobility

International migration of students has expanded in the past two decades, and countries are increasingly competing for foreign students. According to UNESCO, the number of internationally mobile students more than tripled between 1980 and 2009, to 3.4 million (UNESCO 2011).[30] In general, students migrate from developing countries to the more developed countries and from Europe and Asia to the United States. However, a few countries have emerged as regional hubs in their geographic regions, e.g., Australia, China, and South Korea for East Asia and South Africa for sub-Saharan Africa (UNESCO 2009).

Some students migrate temporarily for education, whereas others remain permanently. Some factors influencing the decision to seek a degree abroad include the policies of the countries of origin regarding sponsoring their citizens' study abroad; the tuition fee policies of countries of destination; the financial support the countries of destination offer to international students; and the cost of living and exchange rates that impact the cost of international education. The long-term return from international education also depends on how international degrees are recognized by the labor market in the country of origin (OECD 2010). In recent years, many countries, particularly English-speaking countries such as Australia, Canada, the United Kingdom, and the United States, have expanded their provision of transnational education, i.e., programs for foreign students in their home countries (see sidebar "Transnational Higher Education"). The influence of the worldwide economic and monetary crises that began in 2008 on future international flows of students is uncertain.

Some countries expanded recruitment of international students as their own populations of college-age students decreased, both to attract highly skilled workers and increase revenue for colleges and universities (OECD 2010). The population of individuals ages 20–24 (a proxy for the college-age population) decreased in China, Europe, Japan, and the United States in the 1990s and is projected to continue decreasing in China, Europe (mainly Eastern Europe), Japan, South Korea, and South America (appendix table 2-39). The U.S. population of 20–24-year-olds is projected to increase.

The United States remains the destination of the largest number of internationally mobile students (both undergraduate and graduate) of all countries (figure 2-30), although its share declined in recent years. In 2009, the United States received 20% of international students, down from 25% in 2000 (UNESCO 2011). Other top destinations for international students include the United Kingdom (12%), Germany (9%), and France (9%). Together with the U.S., these countries receive more than half of all internationally mobile students worldwide.

Although Australia has a higher percentage (21%) of foreign higher education students (undergraduate and graduate) than the United States (3%), it has a lower share (7%) of foreign students worldwide.[31] Other countries with relatively high percentages of foreign higher education students include Austria (16%), the United Kingdom (15%), Switzerland (14%), and New Zealand (13%). In Switzerland and the United Kingdom, more than 40% of doctoral students are foreign. A number of other countries, including New Zealand, Austria, Australia, Belgium, Canada, and the United States, have relatively high percentages (more than 20%) of doctoral students who are foreign[32] (OECD 2010).

The United Kingdom has been actively expanding its position in international education, both by recruiting foreign students to study in the country and expanding its provision of transnational education (British Council 2011). Foreign student enrollment in the United Kingdom has been increasing, especially at the graduate level, with increasing flows of students from China and India (appendix table 2-40). In 2008, foreign students made up 47% of all graduate students studying S&E in the United Kingdom (an increase from 32% in 1998). Foreign students now account for nearly 60% of graduate students in mathematics, computer sciences, and engineering. Students from China and India accounted for most of the increase, but the number of graduate students from Nigeria, Pakistan, Germany, and the United States also increased. The percentage of foreign undergraduate students increased little.

Japan has increased its enrollment of foreign students in recent years and in 2008 announced plans to triple foreign enrollment in 12 years (McNeil 2008). In 2010, almost 70,000 foreign students were enrolled in S&E programs in Japanese universities, up from 57,000 in 2004. Foreign S&E student enrollment in Japan is concentrated at the undergraduate level, accounting for 67% of all foreign S&E students. Foreign nationals accounted for 3% of undergraduate and 16% of graduate S&E students in Japan. The vast majority of the foreign students were from Asian countries. In 2010, Chinese students accounted for 69% of the foreign S&E undergraduate students and 57% of graduate S&E students in Japan. South Koreans comprised 19% of the foreign undergraduates and 10% of the graduates. Indonesia, Vietnam, Malaysia, Thailand, Mongolia, and Nepal were among the top 10 countries of origin for both undergraduates and graduate students (appendix table 2-41).

Foreign students constitute an increasing share of enrollment in Canadian universities. Foreign S&E students accounted for about 7% of undergraduate and 22% of graduate S&E enrollment in Canada in 2008, up from 4% and 14% in 1999. In 2008, at both the undergraduate and graduate levels, the highest percentages of foreign S&E students were in mathematics/computer sciences and engineering. China was the top country of origin of foreign S&E students in Canada, accounting for 15% of foreign S&E graduate and 15% of undergraduate students. The United States was also among the top countries of origin of foreign students, accounting for 7% of foreign S&E graduate students and 10% of foreign S&E undergraduate students in Canada. About 10% of foreign S&E graduate students in Canada were from France and 9% from Iran. At the undergraduate level, 8% of Canada's foreign S&E undergraduate population was from France (appendix table 2-42).

Although foreign students make up a large share of U.S. higher education, U.S. students constitute a relatively small share of foreign students worldwide. About 52,328 U.S. students (in all fields) were reported as foreign students by OECD and OECD-partner countries in 2008, far fewer than the number of foreign students from China, France, Germany, India, Japan, or South Korea. The main destinations of U.S. students were the United Kingdom (13,900), Canada (9,900), Germany (3,300), France (3,200), Australia (3,100), New Zealand (2,900), Ireland (2,800)—mainly English-speaking countries (OECD 2010).

About 260,000 U.S. students from U.S. universities enrolled in study-abroad programs in the 2008–09 academic year, down slightly from 2007–08 (1%), but up 81% in the last 10 years (IIE 2010). Just over one-third enrolled in programs lasting one semester, a similar proportion in the summer term, and 12% in short-term programs (2–8 weeks). About 12% were graduate students; the rest were undergraduates, primarily juniors or seniors. About one-third were studying in S&E fields: 21% in social sciences, 7% in physical or life sciences, 3% in engineering, 2% in mathematics or computer sciences, and 1% in agricultural sciences.


[25] These data are based on national labor force surveys and are subject to sampling error; therefore, small differences between countries may not be meaningful. The standard error for the U.S. percentage of 25- to 64-year-olds with a bachelor's or higher degree is roughly 0.1, and the standard error for the U.S. percentage of 25- to 34-year-olds with a bachelor's or higher degree is roughly 0.4.
[26] 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, maîtrise in France, and bachelor's degree in the United States and Asian countries).
[27] Differences in the taxonomies of engineering programs and level of reporting detail across countries make exact comparisons difficult.
[28] In international comparisons, S&E fields do not include medical or health fields.
[29] This proportion excludes medical/other life sciences doctorate awards in the United States because international sources cannot separate the MD degrees from the health fields, and the MDs are professional and not research degrees.
[30] Internationally mobile students are students who have crossed a national or territorial border for the purposes of education and are now enrolled outside their country of origin.
[31] Foreign students are those who do not hold the citizenship of the country for which the data were collected.
[32] In many OECD countries, students in S&E fields make up a considerable proportion of international students. No data are available by degree level and field of study.