Higher Education

OWID presents work from many different people and organizations. When citing this entry, please also cite the original data source. This entry can be cited as:

Max Roser and Mohamed Nagdy (2016) – ‘Higher Education’. Published online at OurWorldInData.org. Retrieved from: https://ourworldindata.org/higher-education/ [Online Resource]

The history of higher education is distinct from other forms of education, with some universities among the oldest learning institutions in the world. The development of universities, and higher education more generally, over the course of the last millennium is closely tied to religion. Universities were established as organisations free from direct control of the church or other religious institutions, a privilege usually granted by the king or state. This privilege allowed for academic freedom to question, research and advance knowledge. Religious studies remained an important focus in most early medieval universities. In the modern world universities have two purposes: equip students with advanced skills useful in the workplace and to further human knowledge and understanding of the world.

More information on the rise of education across the world is available here, while a more detailed discussion of the returns to higher education can be found here.

# Empirical View

This section covers both the historical perspective on higher education as well as recent trends and future projections.

# The Historical Perspective: Religion and Higher Education

In the past, there were very few higher education institutions since only a small fraction of the population was able to read or write. During this early period, centers of education mostly had a religious focus and trained clergy. In Western Europe these centers were monasteries, while in the Islamic world these were madrasas. The following table shows the increasing number of monasteries in Western Europe between the 6th and the 15th century.

# Estimated number of monasteries in Western Europe, 6th – 15th century – Van Zanden (2009)1

Central Europe00001679458718695690
Great Britain2364604634374375261325153014471333
Western Europe119320943168438563431248520125219482127020369
New foundations1013102112841533239767768888383615161226
Increase in %8658444891631764

# The Secularization of Higher Education in Europe

The number of all monasteries in Western Europe is displayed below. Between the end of the first millennium and the 13th century the number grew rapidly, before coming to a halt and declining.

At the same time evolved a new form of a higher education institution: the university. These secular institutions began to rise as monasteries slowly started to decline, and the religious powers lost their monopoly on higher education. Still, this was only the beginning; as late as the 18th century there were still fewer than 100 universities in Western Europe.

# Total number of monasteries and total number of universities in Western Europe, 600-18002

The following table paints a more detailed picture of the early rise of universities in Western Europe. By clicking on the top row, you can sort the cells and track the shift of higher learning from the mediterranean countries to the North. In the 15th century, there were 17 universities in Italy and 9 in the Iberian countries. Thereafter there were no new universities in these two regions, and only one new institution in France. But in the northern countries – especially in Germany and Central Europe – the rise of universities intensified and more universities were founded as time went on.

# Cumulative distribution of foundation dates of universities in Western Europe, 1200-1800 – Buringh & Van Zanden (2009)3

Century< 1212131415 (I)15 (II)16 (I)16 (II)17 (I)17 (II)18 (I)18 (II)
Central Europe00033566891011
British Isles012235577777
Latin West1620445266708089939697

# Higher Education Today and into the Future

The following visualisations show estimations and projections from 1970 to 2050 of higher education by country. The numbers completing degrees is expected to increase around the world as advanced skills become more important in both developing and developed economies. For more information on how these projections are constructed, visit the projections of future education page here.

# Data Sources

# UNESCO Institute of Statistics
  • Data: Comprehensive data on enrollments, out-of-school children, repetition, completion, gender, teachers, education expenditures, learning outcomes, educational attainment, education equality, literacy, population, labor, and EMIS.
  • Geographical coverage: Global by country
  • Time span: 1999-2015
  • Available at: http://data.uis.unesco.org/

# World Bank EdStats
  • Data: indicators on educational attainment, enrolment, attendance, teachers, financing and more
  • Geographical coverage: Global, over 200 countries
  • Time span: 1970 to most recent data year; Projections to 2050
  • Available at: It is online here

# Historical monasteries data – Van Zanden

Van Zanden, Jan Luiten. The long road to the industrial revolution: the European economy in a global perspective, 1000-1800. Vol. 1. Brill, 2009.

# Historical universities data – Buringh and Van Zanden

Buringh, Eltjo, and Jan Luiten Van Zanden. “Charting the “Rise of the West”: Manuscripts and Printed Books in Europe, a long-term Perspective from the Sixth through Eighteenth Centuries.” The Journal of Economic History 69, no. 02 (2009): 409-445.

# Population and Human Capital Projections- International Institute for Applied Systems Analysis (IIASA)