BRUSSELS (Reuters Life!) - Young people in the European Union are less likely to finish higher education than those in Canada, Japan or Russia, according to a new study that underscores the need for the EU to invest wisely in education.
The study by the OECD, a club of the world's largest economies, looked at participation in education among 25-34 year olds and found that in 21 European countries only 34 percent of people, on average, had completed tertiary education.
Korea, Japan, Canada and Russia all had participation rates of more than 50 percent, according to the report, called Education at a Glance 2010 and released this week.
The highest participation rate in the EU was in Ireland, with 45 percent achieving tertiary qualifications.
The findings have broadbased implications for the European Union as the study also shows that unemployment rates among people with a tertiary education are substantially lower than those without higher education, hovering below 4 percent on average as opposed to being above 9 percent.
With unemployment in the European Union stuck at a 12-year high around 10 percent, the relative lack of youth engagement in further education could mean more people staying unemployed for longer, with a knock-on impact on growth.
"Europe cannot risk falling behind in education and training," said Androulla Vassiliou, the European commissioner for education, culture and youth, welcoming the study as it reinforces her call for greater education investment.
"Improving education and training systems is one of the key tasks for the future and the means to both secure Europe's economic success and its social cohesion."
Earlier this year, the EU set out a series of goals for the next decade, including the aim of raising the level of participation in higher education to above 40 percent by 2020.
Next week, Vassiliou's department will launch an initiative designed to get more young people involved in training, education and on-the-job learning, part of the 2020 plan.
But despite the focus on investment, there is also worrying evidence that the EU's spending is not producing results as efficiently as other countries -- a sign that some of the investment is either mistargeted or misguided.
For example, Japan saw a 2-to-1 relationship between the amount spent on education and a related increase in those graduating from higher education between 1995 and 2007.
A study of 19 of the EU's 27 countries found the ratio to be 3-to-1, meaning much more had to be spent to get an equivalent increase in the graduation rate. On average, those EU countries spent 5.4 percent of GDP on education, from primary to tertiary.
"Throwing money at the problem" won't fix it, said Pierre Mairesse, a senior official with the European Commission's education department, adding that "reforms coupled with investment" were needed to ensure the money translates into a college-educated workforce.
One area for improvement would be greater cooperation among EU universities to eliminate waste, Mairesse said, and more coordination between universities and the private sector to ensure students are learning what they need to make them employable and competitive in the workplace.
Editing by Luke Baker and Paul Casciato