Tertiary Education

Notice: This is only a preliminary collection of relevant material

The data and research currently presented here is a preliminary collection or relevant material. We will further develop our work on this topic in the future (to cover it in the same detail as for example our entry on World Population Growth).

If you have expertise in this area and would like to contribute, apply here to join us as a researcher.

The history of tertiary 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 organizations 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.

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

Tertiary education today

Share of the population with tertiary education

Enrolment in tertiary education

The 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).

School life expectancy to tertiary education

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.

Historical rise of tertiary 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.

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.

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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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.

Spending on tertiary education

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)