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Higher education attainment on the up in Europe

Higher education attainment rates in the EU have increased in the past decade. Average higher education attainment across all member states, defined as the share of the 30-34 year olds with a tertiary degree, stood at 34.6% in 2011, up from 33.5% a year earlier, and 22.4% in 2000. The newly released data, collected through the Labour Force Survey of Europe’s statistical agency Eurostat, show impressive growth. But they still fall short of the EU’s ‘headline target’ of 40%, a threshold to be reached by 2020.

A group of 13 countries, led by Ireland with nearly 50%, have already reached or outperformed the target. At the low end are countries like Italy, Romania, Malta, Slovakia, Austria and the Czech Republic, with shares of under 24%.  In two countries, Bulgaria and Malta, attainment rates actually dropped over time.

The European Commission is concerned that the overall progress is not so much due to reform efforts and investments of member states, but to high unemployment among young people, which traditionally increases participation in education and training. Another worry of the Commission is that nationally set targets often remain below the European headline target. Education Commissioner Androulla Vassiliou therefore called on member states to increase their efforts. She stressed that they “need to boost access to higher education while also increasing its quality.” The Commission issued targeted recommendations to seven countries (Austria, Bulgaria, Czech Republic, Hungary, Italy, Latvia and Slovakia) in order to improve higher education access and attainment.

European Commission