Tertiary education graduates across the OECD earn on average 70% more than the non-tertiary educated, meaning despite rising costs of higher education in Australia the investment is still worthwhile.
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The OECD's annual Education: at a glance report found tertiary graduates earned more and had lower unemployment rates.
80% of tertiary education graduates were employed, compared to 60% with below upper secondary education on average across the OECD.
However the benefits weren't only for the individual, the public received a positive return on investment through taxes and social contributions, according to the report.
The public net return on investment was on average over $US105,000 per tertiary educated man, about three times the level of average public investment, and $60,000 for women.
The individual return on investment was lower in Australia than the OECD average however, with the net present value of a degree for a man in Australia $US152,892, compared to the OECD average of $US185,284 and $US192,167 in the EU (Australian women $US105,374 compared to $US129,198 across the OECD and $US131,992 in the EU).
Higher Education Policy Analyst Tim Pitman said the findings were interesting given the current debates about higher education in Australia, and that eventually the cost of a tertiary degree could outweigh the benefit.
"The report shows that the private benefits of tertiary education for Australian students, whilst positive, are below both the OECD and EU average," he said.
"If we do move to deregulate higher education fees then it is vital that universities remember this, and don't charge students purely on the basis of what some are prepared to pay."
Who is being educated?
More people across the OECD were seeing the value in a tertiary education, with 40% of 25-34 years olds being tertiary educated — 15 percentage points higher than the 55-64 age group.
Three quarters of adults had attained at least upper secondary qualifications, and women aged 25-34 had higher attainment rates in both upper secondary and tertiary education than men in the same age group. In 2000 more men had tertiary qualifications than women, the situation reversed in 2012.
Despite more women having higher levels of education, the employment rate was considerably higher among men (80%) than women (65%). This gap was smallest among tertiary educated individuals and widest among those without an upper secondary education.
The wage gap was still significant between men and women, and surprisingly the gap was largest among the tertiary educated.
The report stated that women with a tertiary education earned 80% or more of men's wages in only four countries: Belgium, Slovenia, Spain and Turkey, while in Brazil, Chile and Hungary tertiary educated women earned 65% or less than tertiary educated men.
Prominent commentator and feminist Eva Cox said this reflected the power differences that value women's qualifications less than men's, and the mal-distribution of social roles.
"It affirms the basic continuing gender biases in society in allocating power and rewards," she said.
The report showed significant trends in upwards mobility, with 32% of people in countries surveyed having surpassed the educational attainment levels of their parents.
Women were more likely to surpass their parents' level of education with 40%, compared to 38% of men making it further than their parents. Only 16% on average didn't obtain equal qualifications to their parents.
Early childhood education
The importance of early childhood education was again highlighted, with results showing 15 year-olds who had at least one year of pre-primary education performed better.
The report found early childhood education played a key role in cognitive development and mitigating social inequities, a fact Australia may have been yet to realise with public spending on early childhood learning well below the OECD average.
Australia spends 0.1% of GDP on pre-primary education, significantly less than the OECD average of 0.6%, with other countries such as Denmark, Spain and Chile spending 0.8%.
Early Learning Policy Expert Susan Krieg said Australia had never really understood the importance of the early years, reflected in the lack of research funding for early childhood education, public provision of early childhood education and care (ECEC), and public responsibility for young children.
"Unlike other OECD countries, Australia does not have an enviable record of research that demonstrates the benefits of quality ECEC," she said.
"As a consequence we are dependent on international studies and there is now a significant body of international research that demonstrates the social, economic and educational benefits of investment in ECEC."
Associate Prof Krieg said Australia had adopted a market-driven approach to early learning in which the provision was in response to demand. Whereas a "social investment" approach focuses on the social and economic long-term benefits of early childhood education and care.
"The consequence of this approach is that public responsibility for ECEC is diminished in favour of private provision, competition and resultant inequity," she said.