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This entry gives a basic overview of both the historical perspective on higher education as well as recent trends and future projections.

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.

Tertiary education of the world population

In this section

Share of the population with tertiary education

This map shows the share of population older than 14 years that has completed tertiary education.

In 2010 30% of South Koreans had tertiary education. Ireland and the US follow with the second and highest share of tertiary education.

In many of the world’s poorest countries less than 1% have completed tertiary education.

Access to tertiary education today

In this section

Enrollment in tertiary education

The chart shows in 2014 globally 34% of those within 5 years of finishing secondary education were enrolled in tertiary education.

Between different world regions there were large differences.

How did access to tertiary education change over time?

In this section

Enrollment in tertiary education over time

This chart shows the rise of the gross enrollment ratio in tertiary education across world regions.

It is possible to add particular countries to this plot (by clicking ‘add countries’) or to view this on a world map (by switching to the map view).

Spending on tertiary education

The map shows the total government expenditure on tertiary education as a percentage of GDP.

International mobility of students

The map shows the share of students studying abroad.

A corresponding map showing the share of students arriving from abroad can be seen here.

History of higher education

The secularization of higher education in Europe

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 chart shows the increasing number of monasteries in Western Europe between the 6th and the 15th century. Between the end of the first millennium and the 13th century the number grew rapidly, before coming to a halt and declining.

As the rise of monasteries came to a halt a new form of a higher education institution evolved: 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.

The raw data on monasteries and universities in Europe over the long-run published by Buringh and Van Zanden is available on a separate page.

Total number of monasteries and total number of universities in Western Europe, 600-18001
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The future of higher education

The 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 onwards
  • 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)