Skip all navigation and go to page content

Chapter 2. Higher Education in Science and Engineering

International S&E Higher Education

In the 1990s, many countries expanded their higher education systems and access to higher education. At the same time, flows of students worldwide increased. More recently, a number of countries adopted policies to encourage the return of students who studied abroad, to attract foreign students, or both. (For information on worldwide trends affecting doctoral education, see sidebar "Globalization and Doctoral Education.")

Higher Education Expenditures

Increasingly, governments around the world have come to regard movement toward a knowledge-based economy as key to economic progress. Realizing that this requires a well-trained workforce, they have invested in upgrading and expanding their higher education systems and broadening participation. In most instances, government spending underwrites these developments. One indicator of the importance of higher education is the percentage of resources devoted to higher education, as measured by expenditures on tertiary education (education beyond high school) as a percentage of gross domestic product (GDP). The United States, Canada, and Korea spend the highest percentage of GDP on higher education (appendix table 2-33 ).

An indicator of the growing importance of higher education is the change in expenditures for higher education over time. Expenditures for tertiary education rose more in the United States than in other Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) countries between 1995 and 2000, but less in the United States than in other OECD countries between 2000 and 2005. From 1995 to 2000, educational expenditures in the United States increased faster than the OECD average and faster than almost all of the other OECD countries (except Greece, Ireland, and Poland). From 2000 to 2005, educational expenditures in the United States increased more slowly than the OECD average but at a similar or faster rate than many countries. (In 2006, expenditures per student in the U.S. were double the OECD average [OECD 2008].) Several countries, the Czech Republic, Greece, Iceland, Poland, Portugal, the Slovak Republic, and the United Kingdom, far exceeded the OECD average increase in expenditures from 2000 to 2005 (appendix table 2-33 ). Examination of higher education funding over time is complicated by many things, including changes in measurement, prevalence of public versus private institutions (private institutions are much more prevalent in the United States than in other countries), types and levels of government funding included, and types and levels of education included.

Educational Attainment

Higher education in the United States expanded greatly after World War II, and for several decades the United States led the world in its population's educational attainment. In the 1990s, many countries in Europe and Asia also began to expand their higher education systems. The United States continues to be among those countries with the highest percentage of the population ages 25–64 with a bachelor's degree or higher, but several other countries have surpassed the United States in the percentage of the younger (ages 25–34) population with a bachelor's degree or higher (figure 2-25 ; appendix table 2-34 ).[16]

First University Degrees in S&E Fields

More than 12 million students worldwide earned first university degrees[17] in 2006, with more than 4 million of these in S&E fields (appendix table 2-35 ). These worldwide totals include only countries for which relatively recent data are available (primarily countries in Asia, Europe, and the Americas) and therefore are likely an underestimation. Asian universities accounted for 1.8 million of the world's S&E first university degrees in 2006, almost 900,000 of these in engineering. Students across Europe (including Eastern Europe and Russia) earned more than 1 million S&E degrees and students in North and Central America more than 600,000 in 2006.

In the United States, S&E degrees are about one-third of U.S. bachelor's degrees and have been for a long time. In several countries/economies around the world, the proportion of first university degrees in S&E fields, especially engineering, is higher. More than half of first university degrees were in S&E fields in Japan (63%), China (53%), and Singapore (51%). China has traditionally awarded a large proportion of its first university degrees in engineering, although the percentage has declined in recent years (appendix table 2-36 ). In the United States, about 5% of all bachelor's degrees are in engineering. However, in Asia, about 20% are in engineering, and in China about one-third are in engineering (appendix table 2-35 ). About 12% of all bachelor's degrees in the United States and worldwide are in natural sciences (physical, biological, computer, and agricultural sciences, and mathematics). See the sidebar "International Changes in the Ratio of Natural Science and Engineering Degrees to the College-Age Population."

The number of S&E first university degrees awarded in China, Poland, and Taiwan more than doubled between 1998 and 2006, and those in the United States and many other countries generally increased. Those awarded in Japan decreased in recent years (appendix table 2-36 ). Natural sciences and engineering (NS&E) degrees account for most of the increase in S&E first university degrees in China. The number of NS&E first university degrees in China rose sharply from 2002 to 2006 and more than trebled between 1998 and 2006 (figure 2-26 ). In comparison, those awarded in Germany, Japan, South Korea, the United Kingdom, and the United States remained relatively flat. (For information on reforms affecting degree awards in Europe, see sidebar "Changes in European Higher Education Since the Bologna Process.")

S&E First University Degrees by Sex
Women earned half or more of first university degrees in S&E in many countries around the world in 2006, including Algeria, Argentina, Canada, Greece, Portugal, Saudi Arabia, the United States, and a number of smaller countries. Several countries in Europe are not far behind, with more than 40% of first university S&E degrees earned by women. In many Asian and African countries, women generally earn about one-third or less of the first university degrees awarded in S&E fields (appendix table 2-37 ). In Canada, Japan, the United States, and many smaller countries, more than half of the S&E first university degrees earned by women are in the social and behavioral sciences. In South Korea, 45% of the S&E first university degrees earned by women are in engineering; in Europe, more than 20% are in engineering. In the United Kingdom and the United States, 6% of S&E first university degrees earned by women are in engineering.

Global Comparison of S&E Doctoral Degrees

Almost 174,000 S&E doctoral degrees were earned worldwide in 2006. The United States awarded the largest number of S&E doctoral degrees of any country (about 30,000),[18] followed by China (about 23,000), Russia (almost 20,000), and Germany and the United Kingdom (about 10,000 each) (appendix table 2-38 ). More than 52,000 S&E doctoral degrees were earned in the European Union.

Women earned 40% of S&E doctoral degrees awarded in the United States in 2006, about the same as the percentage earned by women in Australia, Canada, the European Union, and Mexico. They earned more than half of S&E doctoral degrees in Portugal and less than one-quarter of S&E doctoral degrees in the Netherlands, Poland, South Korea, and Taiwan (appendix table 2-39 ).

The number of S&E doctoral degrees awarded in China, Italy, and the United States has risen steeply in recent years (appendix table 2-40 and 2-41 ). The United States awarded the largest number of natural sciences and engineering doctoral degrees, but China (as of 2006) was rapidly catching up (figure 2-27 ) and may have since surpassed the United States. In the United States, as well as in France, Germany, Italy, Spain, Switzerland, and the United Kingdom, the largest numbers of S&E doctoral degrees are in the physical and biological sciences. The number of doctoral degrees in those fields stagnated or declined in many of these countries from the late 1990s through 2006, although the number of these degrees in Italy, Switzerland, and the United States increased in recent years. The number of S&E doctoral degrees in Germany has declined slightly since 2000 (appendix table 2-40).

In Asia, China was the largest producer of S&E doctoral degrees. The number of S&E doctorates awarded in China rose from about 1,900 in 1993 to almost 23,000 in 2006 (appendix table 2-41 ). Recently, the Chinese State Council Academic Degrees Committee announced that China would begin to limit admissions growth in doctoral programs and would focus more on quality of graduates (Mooney 2008). The number of S&E doctorates awarded in India, Japan, South Korea, and Taiwan also rose from 1993 to 2006, but at a lower rate. In China, Japan, South Korea, and Taiwan, more than half of S&E doctorates were awarded in engineering. In India, most doctorates were awarded in the physical and biological sciences (appendix table 2-41).

Global Student Mobility

International migration of students and highly skilled workers expanded in the past two decades, and countries are increasingly competing for foreign students. In particular, students migrated from developing countries to the more developed countries, and from Europe and Asia to the United States. Some migrate temporarily for education, whereas others remain permanently. Some factors influencing the decision to migrate are economic opportunities, research opportunities, research funding, and climate for innovation in the country of destination (OECD 2004). In recent years, many countries, particularly Australia, Canada, the United Kingdom, and the United States, have expanded their provision of transnational education, that is, programs for foreign students in their home countries (NSB 2008). The rise in transnational education, however, has not had much impact on foreign student flows (De Wit 2008). The influence of the worldwide economic and monetary crises beginning in 2008 on international flows of students in the future is uncertain.

Some countries expanded recruitment of foreign students as their own populations of college-age students decreased, both to attract highly skilled workers and increase revenue for colleges and universities (OECD 2008). The population of individuals ages 20–24 (a proxy for the college-age population) decreased in China, Europe, Japan, and the United States in the 1990s and is projected to continue decreasing in China, Europe (mainly Eastern Europe), Japan, and South Korea (appendix table 2-42 ). The U.S. population of 20–24-year-olds is projected to increase.

The U.S. share of foreign students worldwide declined in recent years, although the United States remains the destination of the largest number of foreign students worldwide (both undergraduate and graduate) of all OECD countries (figure 2-28 ). In 2006, the United States received 20% of foreign students worldwide, down from 25% in 2000 (OECD 2008). Other countries that are among the top destinations for foreign students include the United Kingdom (11%), Germany (9%), and France (8%).

Although Australia has a higher percentage of higher education students (undergraduate and graduate) who are foreign (18%) than the United States (3%), it has a lower share (6%) of foreign students worldwide. Other countries with relatively high percentages of higher education students who are foreign include New Zealand (16%), Switzerland and the United Kingdom (14%), and Austria (12%). A number of countries, including Belgium, Canada, New Zealand, Switzerland, the United Kingdom, and the United States, have relatively high percentages (more than 20%) of doctoral students who are foreign (OECD 2008).

The United Kingdom has been actively expanding its position in international education, both by recruiting foreign students to study in the country and expanding its provision of transnational education (British Council 2007). Foreign student enrollment in the United Kingdom is increasing, especially at the graduate level, with increasing flows of students from China and India (appendix table 2-43 ). In just 5 years, from 2001 to 2006, foreign students increased from 35% to 45% of all graduate students studying S&E in the United Kingdom. Foreign students now account for more than half of graduate students in mathematics/computer sciences and engineering. Students from China and India accounted for most of the increase, but the number of graduate students from France, Germany, Ireland, Malaysia, Nigeria, Pakistan, and the United States also increased. The number of foreign undergraduate students also increased, but not as dramatically. Foreign undergraduates accounted for 10% of S&E enrollment in the United Kingdom in 2001 and 11% in 2006.

Japan has increased its enrollment of foreign students in recent years and in 2008 announced plans to triple foreign enrollment in 12 years (McNeil 2008). Almost 60,000 foreign students were enrolled in S&E programs in Japanese universities in 2008, up from 42,000 in 2001. Foreign S&E student enrollment in Japan is concentrated at the undergraduate level, accounting for 68% of all foreign S&E students. Foreign undergraduates account for 3% of undergraduate and 14% of graduate S&E students in Japan. Most of the foreign students were from Asian countries. China, Indonesia, Malaysia, Myanmar, Nepal, South Korea, Thailand, and Vietnam were among the top 10 countries of origin for both undergraduates and graduate students. Chinese students accounted for more than half of foreign undergraduate (68%) and graduate (54%) S&E students in Japan in 2008 (appendix table 2-44 ).

Foreign students are an increasing share of enrollment in Canadian universities. Foreign S&E students accounted for about 6% of undergraduate and 20% of graduate S&E enrollment in Canada in 2006, up from 3% and 17% in 1996, although the foreign shares in 2006 were down slightly from recent years (NSB 2008). In 2005–06, at both the undergraduate and graduate levels, the highest percentages of foreign S&E students were in mathematics/computer sciences and engineering. Asian countries/economies were the top places of origin of foreign S&E graduate and undergraduate students in Canada. China alone accounted for 18% of foreign S&E graduate and undergraduate students in Canada. The United States was also among the top countries of origin of foreign students, accounting for 6% of foreign S&E graduate students and 12% of foreign S&E undergraduate students in Canada (appendix table 2-45 ).

Although foreign students are a large share of U.S. higher education, U.S. students are a relatively small share of foreign students worldwide. About 49,000 U.S. students (in all fields) were reported as foreign students by OECD and OECD partner countries in 2006, far fewer than the numbers of foreign students from China, France, Germany, India, Japan, or South Korea. The main destinations of U.S. students were the United Kingdom (14,800), Canada (9,500), Germany (3,300), Australia (2,900), France (2,800), Ireland (2,100), and New Zealand (2,100)—mainly English speaking countries (OECD 2008).

Approximately 242,000 U.S. students from U.S. universities enrolled in study-abroad programs in the 2006–07 academic year, up 8.5% from 2005–06 (IIE 2008). A little more than one-third were in programs lasting one semester, and more than half were in short-term programs (2–8 weeks). About 5% were graduate students; the rest were undergraduates, primarily juniors or seniors. About one-third were studying in S&E fields: 21% in social sciences, 7% in physical or life sciences, 3% in engineering, 2% in math or computer sciences, and 1% in agricultural sciences.


[16] These data are based on national labor force surveys and are subject to sampling error; therefore, small differences between countries may not be meaningful. The standard error for the U.S. percentage of 25–64-year-olds with a bachelor's or higher degree is roughly 0.1, and the standard error for the U.S. percentage of 25–34-year-olds with a bachelor's or higher degree is roughly 0.4.
[17] A first university degree refers to the completion of a terminal undergraduate degree program. These degrees are classified as level 5A in the International Standard Classification of Education, although individual countries use different names for the first terminal degree (e.g., laureata in Italy, diplome in Germany, maîtrise in France, bachelor's degree in the United States and Asian countries).
[18] In international comparisons, S&E fields do not include medical or health fields.

Science and Engineering Indicators 2010   Arlington, VA (NSB 10-01) | January 2010