Tertiary education

Students attend a lecture at a tertiary institution: Helsinki University of Technology

Tertiary education, also referred to as third-level, third-stage or post-secondary education, is the educational level following the completion of secondary education. The World Bank, for example, defines tertiary education as including universities as well as trade schools and colleges. Higher education is taken to include undergraduate and postgraduate education, while vocational education beyond secondary education is known as further education in the United Kingdom, or included under the category of continuing education in the United States.

Tertiary education generally culminates in the receipt of certificates, diplomas, or academic degrees.

UNESCO stated that tertiary education focuses on learning endeavors in specialized fields. It includes academic and higher vocational education.

The World Bank's 2019 World Development Report on the future of work argues that given the future of work and the increasing role of technology in value chains, tertiary education becomes even more relevant for workers to compete in the labor market.

Global progress

Percentage of 25-29-year-olds who have completed at least four years of tertiary education, by wealth, selected countries, 2008-2014

Globally, the gross enrollment ratio in tertiary education increased from 19% in 2000 to 38% in 2017, with the female enrollment ratio exceeding the male ratio by 4 percentage points.

The tertiary gross enrollment ratio ranges from 9% in low-income countries to 77% in high-income countries, where, after rapid growth in the 2000s, reached a plateau in the 2010s.

Between now and 2030, the biggest increase in tertiary enrollment ratios is expected in middle-income countries, where it will reach 52%. Sustainable Development Goal 4 (SDG 4) commits countries to providing lifelong learning opportunities for all, including tertiary education.

This commitment is monitored through the global indicator for target 4.3 in the sustainable development goal 4 (SDG 4), which measures the participation rate of youth and adults in formal and non-formal education and training in the previous 12 months, whether for work or non-work purposes.


In 1994, the UNESCO Salamanca Statement called on the international community to endorse the approach of inclusive education, including at the tertiary level. Since this time the world has witnessed the global massification of tertiary education, yet this explosion of facilities and enrollment has largely entrenched and exacerbated the exclusion of people with disabilities. This is particularly the case in low- and middle-income contexts, where university completion rates for students with disabilities are much lower compared to completion rates of students without disabilities.

Some tertiary schools have been criticized as having permitted or actively encouraged grade inflation. In addition, certain scholars contend that the supply of graduates in some fields of study is exceeding the demand for their skills, aggravating graduate unemployment, underemployment and credentialism.

Influence on views

Graduates of tertiary education are likely to have different worldviews and moral values than non-graduates. Research indicates that graduates are more likely to have libertarian principles with less adherence to social hierarchies. Graduates are also more likely to embrace cultural and ethnic diversity and express more positive views towards minority groups. For international relationships, graduates are more likely to favor openness, supporting policies like free trade, open borders, the European Union, and more liberal policies regarding international migration.

Tertiary education statistics

The total expenditure on tertiary education (ISCED levels 5 to 8) as a percentage of GDP for individual countries is shown in the following table.

Country Tertiary Education expenditure as % of GDP 2020
 Australia 1.9
 Austria 1.8
 Belgium 1.6
 Bulgaria 1.2
 Canada 2.4
 Chile 2.7
 Colombia 1.5
 Costa Rica 1.6
 Croatia 1.2
 Czech Republic 1.1
 Denmark 1.9
 Estonia 1.5
 Finland 1.6
 France 1.6
 Germany 1.3
 Greece 0.9
 Hungary 0.9
 Iceland 1.4
 Ireland 0.8
 Israel 1.4
 Italy 1.0
 Japan 1.4
 Latvia 1.4
 Lithuania 1.2
 Luxembourg 0.5
 Mexico 1.2
 Netherlands 1.8
 New Zealand 1.6
 Norway 2.0
 Poland 1.3
 Portugal 1.3
 Romania 0.8
 Slovakia 1.1
 Slovenia 1.2
 South Korea 1.5
 Spain 1.5
 Sweden 1.6
 Turkey 1.5
 United Kingdom 1.5
 United States of America 2.5

The percentage of adults who have attained individual tertiary education levels by country is shown in the following table.

Country Ages 25–64: % attaining a tertiary degree course equivalent to at least:
Any tertiary Bachelor's Master's Doctoral
 Argentina 24.8 1.4
 Australia 51.5 39.4 10.9 1.9
 Austria 35.6 20.4 14.8 1.2
 Belgium 45.8 45.0 20.1 1.1
 Brazil 21.0 21.0 1.0 0.3
 Bulgaria 29.8 29.8 20.4 0.3
 Canada 62.7
 Chile 31.4
 China 18.5
 Colombia 28.3
 Costa Rica 25.3
 Czech Republic 26.7 26.5 19.7 0.7
 Denmark 42.1 37.0 16.3 1.5
 Estonia 42.1 36.5 21.8 0.8
 Finland 42.6 35.1 17.3 1.3
 France 41.6 27.2 15.2 1.0
 Germany 32.5 31.9 13.6 1.9
 Greece 35.1 34.7 9.3 0.9
 Hungary 29.4 28.5 13.9 0.5
 India 12.9 12.9 3.4 3.4
 Indonesia 13.1 10.3 0.8 0.0
 Iceland 43.6 39.4 18.1 1.2
 Ireland 54.4 44.3 16.6 1.7
 Israel 50.6 39.6 15.2 1.2
 Italy 20.3 20.2 14.6 0.6
 Japan 56.1
 Latvia 39.5 35.1 18.4 0.4
 Lithuania 46.5 46.5 16.5 0.8
 Luxembourg 51.5 46.6 31.4 2.9
 Mexico 20.6 20.1 1.9 0.1
 Netherlands 44.7 42.4 18.2 1.2
 New Zealand 39.8 35.8 6.3 1.1
 Norway 48.1 36.5 15.4 1.5
 Poland 33.9 33.8 26.2 0.8
 Portugal 31.5 31.2 21.7 0.9
 Romania 19.7
 Slovakia 29.2 29.1 25.3 0.9
 Slovenia 40.1 31.7 20.1 3.7
 South Korea 52.8
 South Africa 13.9
 Spain 41.1 28.5 17.2 0.8
 Sweden 48.5 38.7 18.7 2.0
 Switzerland 44.7 44.7 20.0 3.2
 Turkey 25.0 18.3 2.3 0.4
 United Kingdom 51.3 42.3 15.8 1.7
 United States of America 50.0 39.4 14.4 2.1

United Kingdom

Under devolution in the United Kingdom, education is administered separately in England, Wales, Northern Ireland, and Scotland. In England, the term "tertiary education" aligns with the global term "higher education" (i.e. post-18 study). In 2018 the Welsh Government adopted the term "tertiary education" to refer to post-16 education and training in Wales. Since the 1970s, however, specialized further education colleges in England and Wales have called themselves "tertiary colleges" although being part of the secondary education process. These institutions cater for both school leavers and adults, thus combining the main functions of an FE college and a sixth form college. Generally, district councils with such colleges have adopted a tertiary system or structure where a single local institution provides all the 16–19 and adult education, and where schools do not universally offer sixth forms (i.e. schools only serve ages 11–16). However the Further and Higher Education Act 1992 has effectively prevented the creation of new tertiary colleges.


Deakin University, one of Australia's 43 universities

Within Australia "tertiary education" refers to continuing studies after a student completes secondary school. Tertiary education options include universities, technical and further education (TAFE) or private universities.

United States

The University of Pennsylvania, an American research university

The higher education system in the United States is decentralized and regulated independently by each state with accreditors playing a key role in ensuring institutions meet minimum standards. It is large and diverse with institutions that are privately governed and institutions that are owned and operated by state and local governments. Some private institutions are affiliated with religious organizations whereas others are secular with enrollment ranging from a few dozen to tens of thousands of students. The United States Department of Education presents a broad-spectrum view of tertiary education and detailed information on the nation's educational structure, accreditation procedures, and connections to state as well as federal agencies and entities.

The Carnegie Classification of Institutions of Higher Education provides one framework for classifying U.S. colleges and universities in several different ways. US tertiary education also includes various non-profit organizations promoting professional development of individuals in the field of higher education and helping expand awareness of related issues like international student services and complete campus internationalization.

European Union

Although tertiary education in the EU includes university, it can differ from country to country.


After going to nursery school (French: école maternelle), elementary school (French: école élémentaire), middle school (French: collège), and high school (French: lycée), a student may go to university, but may also stop at that point.


University of Bologna, established in AD 1088, is the world's oldest university in continuous operation.

Education in Italy is compulsory from 6 to 16 years of age, and is divided into five stages: kindergarten (scuola dell'infanzia), primary school (scuola primaria or scuola elementare), lower secondary school (scuola secondaria di primo grado or scuola media inferiore), upper secondary school (scuola secondaria di secondo grado or scuola media superiore) and university (università). Education is free in Italy and free education is available to children of all nationalities who are residents in Italy. Italy has both a private and public education system.

Established in 1224 by Frederick II, Holy Roman Emperor, University of Naples Federico II in Italy is the world's oldest state-funded university in continuous operation.
Bocconi University in Milan is a leading institution for economics, management and related disciplines in Europe.

Italy has a large and international network of public or state-affiliated universities and schools offering degrees in higher education. State-run universities of Italy constitute the main percentage of tertiary education in Italy and are managed under the supervision of Italian's Ministry of Education.

Italian universities are among the oldest universities in the world; the University of Bologna (founded in 1088) notably, is the oldest one ever; also, University of Naples Federico II are is the world's oldest state-funded university in continuous operation. Most universities in Italy are state-supported. 33 Italian universities were ranked among the world's top 500 in 2019, the third-largest number in Europe after the United Kingdom and Germany.

There are also a number of Superior Graduate Schools (Grandes écoles) or Scuola Superiore Universitaria, offer officially recognized titles, including the Diploma di Perfezionamento equivalent to a Doctorate, Dottorato di Ricerca i.e. Research Doctorate or Doctor Philosophiae i.e. PhD. Some of them also organize courses Master's degree. There are three Superior Graduate Schools with "university status", three institutes with the status of Doctoral Colleges, which function at graduate and post-graduate level. Nine further schools are direct offshoots of the universities (i.e. do not have their own 'university status'). The first one is the Scuola Normale Superiore di Pisa (founded in 1810 by Napoleon as a branch of École Normale Supérieure), taking the model of organization from the famous École Normale Supérieure. These institutions are commonly referred to as "Schools of Excellence" (i.e. "Scuole di Eccellenza").

Italy hosts a broad variety of universities, colleges and academies. Founded in 1088, the University of Bologna is likely the oldest in the world. In 2009, the University of Bologna is, according to The Times, the only Italian college in the top 200 World Universities. Milan's Bocconi University has been ranked among the top 20 best business schools in the world by The Wall Street Journal international rankings, especially thanks to its M.B.A. program, which in 2007 placed it no. 17 in the world in terms of graduate recruitment preference by major multinational companies. Bocconi was also ranked by Forbes as the best worldwide in the specific category Value for Money. In May 2008, Bocconi overtook several traditionally top global business schools in the Financial Times Executive education ranking, reaching no. 5 in Europe and no. 15 in the world.

Other top universities and polytechnics are the Università Cattolica del Sacro Cuore in Milan, the LUISS in Rome, the Polytechnic University of Turin, the Politecnico di Milano (which in 2011 was ranked as the 48th best technical university in the world by QS World University Rankings), the University of Rome La Sapienza (which in 2005 was Europe's 33rd best university, and ranks among Europe's 50 and the world's 150 best colleges and in 2013, the Center for World University Rankings ranked the Sapienza University of Rome 62nd in the world and the top in Italy in its World University Rankings.) and the University of Milan (whose research and teaching activities have developed over the years and have received important international recognition). This University is the only Italian member of the League of European Research Universities (LERU), a prestigious group of twenty research-intensive European Universities. It has also been awarded ranking positions such as 1st in Italy and 7th in Europe (The Leiden Ranking – Universiteit Leiden).



Federal Polytechnic, Nekede in Owerri, Nigeria

Tertiary education refers to post-secondary education received at universities (government or privately funded), monotechnics, polytechnics and colleges of education. After completing a secondary education, students may enroll in a tertiary institution or acquire a vocational education. Students are required to sit for the Joint Admissions and Matriculation Board Entrance Examination (JAMB) as well as the Secondary School Certificate Examination (SSCE) or General Certificate Examination (GCE) and meet varying cut-off marks to gain admission into a tertiary institution.



University of Tokyo, a research university in Tokyo

According to MEXT (Ministry of Education) and UNESCO, following types of education are classified as tertiary education: University education (undergraduate, postgraduate and professional degrees), two-year colleges (Tanki Daigaku), colleges of technology and specialised colleges.

Hong Kong

Chinese University of Hong Kong, one of Hong Kong's universities

In Hong Kong "tertiary education" or "higher education" refers to any education higher than secondary education. Tertiary education includes universities, post secondary colleges, statutory universities, and publicly funded institutions.

See also

This page was last updated at 2024-04-19 18:47 UTC. Update now. View original page.

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