Higher education, post-secondary education, or third level education is an optional final stage of formal learning that occurs after secondary education. Often delivered at universities, academies, colleges, seminaries, and institutes of technology, higher education is also available through certain college-level institutions, including vocational schools, trade schools, and other career colleges that award academic degrees or professional certifications. Tertiary education at non-degree level is sometimes referred to as further education or continuing education as distinct from higher education.
The right of access to higher education is mentioned in a number of international human rights instruments. The UN International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights of 1966 declares, in Article 13, that "higher education shall be made equally accessible to all, on the basis of capacity, by every appropriate means, and in particular by the progressive introduction of free education". In Europe, Article 2 of the First Protocol to the European Convention on Human Rights, adopted in 1950, obliges all signatory parties to guarantee the right to education.
In the days when few pupils progressed beyond primary education, the term "higher education" was often used to refer to secondary education, which can create some confusion.〔For example, ''Higher Education: General and Technical'', a 1933 National Union of Teachers pamphlet by Lord Eustace Percy, which is actually about secondary education and uses the two terms interchangeably.〕
Higher education is an educational level that follows a completion of a school providing a secondary education, such as a high school, secondary school, or gymnasium. Tertiary education is normally taken to include undergraduate and postgraduate education, as well as vocational education and training. Colleges, universities, and institutes of technology are the main institutions that provide tertiary education (sometimes known collectively as tertiary institutions). Examples of institutions that provide post-secondary education are vocational schools, community colleges, independent colleges (e.g. institutes of technology), and universities in the United States, the institutes of technical and further education in Australia, pre-university colleges in Quebec, and the IEKs in Greece. They are sometimes known collectively as tertiary institutions. Completion of a tertiary education program of study generally results in the awarding of certificates, diplomas, or academic degrees.
Higher education includes teaching, research, exacting applied work (e.g. in medical schools and dental schools), and social services activities of universities. Within the realm of teaching, it includes both the ''undergraduate'' level, and beyond that, ''graduate-level'' (or ''postgraduate'' level). The latter level of education is often referred to as graduate school, especially in North America.
Since World War II, developed and many developing countries have increased the participation of the age group who mostly studies higher education from the elite rate, of up to 15 per cent, to the mass rate of 16 to 50 per cent.〔Trow, Martin (1973) Problems in the transition from elite to mass higher education. Carnegie Commission on Higher Education, Berkeley, http://www.eric.ed.gov/ERICWebPortal/search/detailmini.jsp?_nfpb=true&_&ERICExtSearch_SearchValue_0=ED091983&ERICExtSearch_SearchType_0=no&accno=ED091983, accessed 1 August 2013〕〔Brennan, John (2004) The social role of the contemporary university: contradictions, boundaries and change, in Center for Higher Education Research and Information (ed.)〕〔Ten years on: changing education in a changing world (Buckingham: The Open University Press), https://www.open.ac.uk/cheri/documents/ten-years-on.pdf, accessed 9 February 2014〕 In many developed countries, participation in higher education has continued to increase towards universal or, what Trow later called, open access, where over half of the relevant age group participate in higher education.〔Trow, Martin (2007) () Reflections on the transition from elite to mass to universal access: forms and phases of higher education in modern societies since WWII, Springer International Handbooks of Education volume 18, 2007, 243-280〕 Higher education is important to national economies, both as an industry, in its own right, and as a source of trained and educated personnel for the rest of the economy. College educated workers have commanded a measurable wage premium and are much less likely to become unemployed than less educated workers.〔Michael Simkovic, (Risk-Based Student Loans ) (2013)〕〔OECD, Education at a Glance (2011)〕 However, the admission of so many students of only average ability to higher education inevitably requires a decline in academic standards, facilitated by grade inflation. Also, the supply of graduates in many fields of study is exceeding the demand for their skills, which aggravates graduate unemployment and underemployment.
Higher education in some countries, including the United States, Canada, the United Kingdom, and Ireland, specifically refers to post-secondary institutions that offer Associate's degrees, Bachelor's degrees, Master's degrees, Education Specialist (Ed.S.) degrees or Doctor of Philosophy (Ph.D.) degrees, or their equivalents, and also higher professional degrees in areas such as dentistry, law, medicine, optometry, pharmacology and veterinary medicine.
Such institutions may also offer non-degree certificates, which indicate completion of a set of courses comprising a body of knowledge on a particular topic, but the granting of such certificates is not the primary purpose of the institutions. Tertiary education is not a term used in reference to post-secondary institutions in the United States or Canada.
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