Appendix 1  

I: International Data  
International Statistics on Higher Education  
Comparative and Historical Data on Education  
Limitations of the Data  
Tables A - G  

I: International Data

International Statistics on Higher Education

As part of its work, the Secretariat for the Task Force on Higher Education undertook some independent research describing and analyzing cross-country patterns and trends in higher education. The Secretariat quickly discovered that UNESCO is the main, but not the only, source of basic data on higher education. The Secretariat also discovered that the data available tend to be sketchy in terms of the countries, years, and variables covered. In addition, the quality of the data are generally not well established.

Considerable effort went into assembling and testing the consistency of the cross-country data on higher education that were used in crafting portions of this Report. These data are reproduced in this Appendix, in the interests of transparency, of providing readers with the raw data needed to facilitate making further comparisons, and of sparing other researchers the time-consuming and tedious task of duplicating our efforts. To increase the value of this data supplement, the tables also include many standard higher education indicators not specifically relied upon in the report, as well as a number of general indicators of social and economic development.

In addition to the printed tables, the data are available electronically as part of the website maintained at the Center for International Development at Harvard University ( It is anticipated that the data maintained on this website will be supplemented from time to time with additional cross-country information related to faculty compensation, international test scores, the nature of higher education laws and regulations, faculty-to-student ratios, indexes of public and private tuition, and numbers of public and private higher education institutions and average enrollment levels at each. In the course of preparing this report, we have particularly felt the absence of reliable data on the number of institutions of each type.

While assembling these data – all of which are derived from cross-country compilations that aimed at consistency – we have noted instances in which the figures given for a particular country do not match those independently available from sources within that country. For the sake of consistency, we have not made adjustments to the tables in such cases.

The tables cover 178 countries, which are listed alphabetically. They include data on enrollment, attainment, expenditure, research output, and several other items. Past and current values are reported for most indicators. Definitions for selected variables covered in the tables appear in the notes following the tables, as do references to the underlying data sources. Data aggregations for geographical regions and economic groupings have been calculated by weighting each country’s data by population. When appropriate, weighting has been based on population subgroups.

Comparative and Historical Data on Education

The primary international source of data about education at all levels is UNESCO, the United Nations Educational, Social and Cultural Organization. UNESCO’s Institute for Statistics collects and disseminates data on education from all countries and territories. A large amount of data are available from 1960 onward.

The Institute’s main sources of information are official replies to questionnaires sent to countries annually. Three types of questionnaire are used: a questionnaire on education at pre-primary, first and second levels; one on education at the tertiary level; and one on educational finance and expenditure. Information is collected on enrollment by level, gender, age, and field of study (for higher education); teaching staff by level and gender; illiteracy; educational attainment; and foreign students and graduates. The Institute for Statistics also reviews ad hoc national surveys designed to meet special needs, as well as other national publications and reports. They supplement these data with information from other international sources, including the Statistics and Population Division of the United Nations (for population, literacy, and attainment data), the World Bank (for GNP and other economic data), and the International Monetary Fund (for exchange rates).

Within individual countries, the responsibility for collecting data most commonly rests with the ministry of education or the central bureau of statistics. Questionnaires completed by schools are the basis for much of the information. Statistics on education spending are an exception, and may most often be obtained from central budgetary departments. Data on the adult population, such as level of educational attainment and literacy rates, are typically collected through national population censuses or through sample surveys.

The Institute for Statistics examines the data it receives, cross-referencing it with other sources and with the information maintained on its own database. If the new information appears problematic, they send a letter to the national authority cited as the source of the information and request a clarification. Their aim is to receive either corrected data, or an understanding of why the original data are correct despite the apparent discrepancy. If the issue is not resolved to their satisfaction, they may choose not to publish the data or to add a footnote expressing their concerns.

UNESCO organizes all this data and publishes it in its annual Statistical Yearbook, which is a major source of internationally comparable data on education. Many additional UNESCO publications draw on this data set or supplement it, and are listed within the Yearbook. UNESCO data and publications lists are now easily accessed electronically on the UNESCO Institute for Statistics website, Computerized data are generally available for 1970 onward. In addition, the very detailed tables of the Statistical Yearbook exist as electronic spreadsheets that may be accessed through queries to the Institute for Statistics.

Additional sources of international educational data include the World Bank, which produces the World Development Report, and other United Nations offices, such as the United Nations Development Program, which publishes the annual Human Development Report. A review of these publications demonstrates that almost all of their international data on education are ultimately attributed to UNESCO.

The most significant additional source of information on education is the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD). The OECD collects extensive data about its 29 member countries, all highly developed nations. Beginning in 1998, 13 developing nations also began contributing data to the OECD. OECD data on education are significantly more detailed than usually available. For example, data on literacy are collected through a specialized instrument, the International Adult Literacy Survey, and reflect specific literacy skills of the adult population. At the tertiary level, OECD releases information otherwise not easily found, including information on private as well as public sources of funding; net enrollment ratios (as opposed to the gross enrollment ratios more commonly available); and teacher/student ratios at the tertiary level.

Some educational data are constructed by economists, based on census data distributed by UNESCO or a similar source. Robert Barro and Jong-Wha Lee, for example, have created estimates of educational attainment at 5-year intervals for over 125 countries. Their estimation procedure begins with census information on school attainment, provided by individual governments and compiled by UNESCO and other sources. The census data provide benchmark numbers for a subset of dates under consideration. Missing cells are then filled in by using school enrollment ratios at various levels of schooling to estimate changes from the benchmarks to a more current date. The basic idea is that the flow of the enrolled population can be added to prior attainment levels to determine future levels. In this manner, full estimates of educational attainment can be obtained for most countries from the benchmark figures of one or more years, and from the reasonably complete data on school enrollment ratios.

In Barro and Lee’s 1996 data set, for example, 310 census observations filled 35 per cent of the 882 possible cells from 1960 to 1990 for 126 countries. The estimation procedure described above allowed them to construct a complete data set at 5-year intervals for 105 of these countries. The data are incomplete for the remaining 21 countries.

Limitations of the Data

There are three main issues that arise in using available national-level data on education: the comparability of the data, both across nations and over time; the consistency of the data; and the accuracy of the data.


The problem of ensuring consistency of educational data across nations is a difficult one and is broadly recognized. In the 1998 Statistical Yearbook, UNESCO authors repeatedly warn users of the need to take care when exercising comparisons between countries, and especially across groups of countries. Many of the differences between nations are detailed in charts that demonstrate differing years of educational entry, different years of schooling offered at the various levels, and different requirements about compulsory education. Readers are warned of particular issues, such as the counting of full-time and part-time teachers, which may vary across nations and have a strong and potentially misleading impact on data about pupil/teacher ratios.


Efforts to deal with consistency problems have been under way for many years. Work on the standardization of educational statistics was first begun by UNESCO in 1926. Today’s data reflect the impact of two sets of standards, the ISCED (International Standard Classification of Education), and the Recommendation Concerning the International Standardization of Educational Statistics that was adopted by UNESCO in 1958 and revised in 1978 to make it compatible with ISCED. ISCED provides general definitions of eight educational levels, and provides definitions for 518 programs of education and for 21 general fields of study. The Recommendation details definitions and tabulations under four sections: statistics on illiteracy; on the educational attainment of the population; on enrollment, teachers, and educational institutions; and on educational finance. Together these standards provide some basis for creating greater international consistency for educational data.

That said, there is still reason to interpret much of the international educational data with caution. Definitions, coverage and data-collection methods still differ across countries and may vary over time within countries, making interpretation difficult. The map of the world changes over time, and countries subject to major transitions, such as those of Eastern Europe, present problems of consistency and comparability. Periods of war and internal crises will obviously affect the ability of a country to produce sound statistical information. Developing countries, particularly, vary in the amount of expertise and resources they choose to devote to statistical research on education.

Attempts to present information about educational financing across countries are particularly troubled by issues of comparability. One problem is the lack of complete information. Although many countries provide data on public expenditure on education, some limit their reporting to funds from the central ministry of education and neglect to report financial support from other branches and levels of government. Few nations report anything at all about private expenditure, despite the fact that, in many countries, private spending is a considerable factor at one or more levels of educational institutions.

Another problem that makes it difficult to compare financial information across nations is the blur between operating funds and capital expenditure. For example, one UNESCO table displaying data on operating expenditure for 108 countries had 12 footnotes indicating that, for those nations, capital expenses were also included in the figure.

A final – but particularly troublesome – issue in assessing financial data relates to the difficulties inherent in comparing different currencies across nations and over time. Without knowledge of inflationary trends within a country, for example, it can be difficult to compare the meaning of changing amounts of spending over time. Comparing spending across countries is even more difficult. Besides addressing inflationary pressures and currency conversion issues, it is necessary to adjust figures to compensate for differences in purchasing power from nation to nation over each year in question. Our research uncovered studies in which financial expenditures across the world were compared without properly considering each of these conversion issues.


The overall accuracy of educational data is another issue of serious concern. Jeffrey Puryear (1992) reports conversations in 1992 with experts at UNESCO who estimate that data from perhaps 70 countries – slightly fewer than half of UNESCO’s member states – suffer from serious accuracy problems. Amartya Sen and Jean Drèze, in their monograph India: Economic Development and Social Opportunity, refuse to use official data on education, stating that these figures are known to be grossly inflated, partly due to the incentive that government employees at different levels have to report exaggerated figures. Although official statistics portray a gross enrollment ratio of 98–99 per cent at the primary level, they present data from the census and a National Sample Survey that show that only 40–42 per cent of rural girls between age 5 and 14 attend school. India is obviously not alone in having officials overstate rates of enrollment for political reasons.

Data can also be unreliable due to poor assessment techniques. The data on illiteracy present one example. Few people realize that illiteracy rates are typically self-reported on population census forms, and that there is no universally accepted objective standard to evaluate literacy. Among the developed countries, the OECD has collected data on functional literacy, but similar efforts have been lacking within the developing world. In some cases UNESCO considers attainment of a fourth-grade education to be sufficient evidence of literacy, even though no data are collected about the actual outputs of the educational process, or the skills typically demonstrated by students upon completing a given grade level. Measures such as literacy rates, which purport to reflect actual achievement, therefore need to be viewed somewhat skeptically.

In summary, though some efforts have been made to assess and correct issues of comparability and accuracy of national-level education data, much more work needs to be done. Given how extensively these data are relied upon, higher priority should be given to efforts in this area.

Table A: Gross enrollment ratios (primary, secondary, tertiary)
Table B: Enrollment data (tertiary)
Table C: Attainment rates
Table D: Public expenditure on education as a Whole
Table E: Expenditures on tertiary education
Table F: Other educational data (literacy rate, numbers studying abroad, etc.)
Table G: Other Data