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Education level and health in Norway - fact sheet

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Education level is associated with health. When health is measured in terms of mortality, it is found that those with the highest education level have the lowest mortality. In other words, people with a high education live longer.

Lower education is defined as lower secondary school, or compulsory education. Upper secondary school is classified as a medium level education, and college/university are classified as higher or tertiary education.

The education level of the Norwegian population has increased significantly in the last 25 years. In 1980, approximately half (47 per cent) of those who were 25 years and older had only been to lower secondary school. In 2014, the proportion was reduced to 23 per cent. Over the same period, the proportion with education from college or university increased from 12 to 35 per cent, see figure 1.

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Figure 1. Population 25 years and over, highest completed education level.
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Table 1. Education level in the Norwegian population.

More young women than young men are completing higher education. Since 2001, there have been more women than men with a tertiary education in Norway and women are continuing to increase the gap.

In the age range 25-44 years, there were in 2014 over 40 % more women than men that had completed a tertiary education. In the age range 25-74 years, there were also more women than men with a tertiary education. However, among those 75 years and over, there were more men than women with university or college education, see table 1.

Geographical differences

There are geographical differences in education level in Norway. If we look at the proportion of those 25 years or older that only has compulsory education, we find that this applies to 30 per cent of the population in Finnmark and 27-28 per cent of the population in Hedmark, Nordland and Østfold. Oslo has the lowest proportion of inhabitants with no more than compulsory education, 18 per cent, see figure 2.

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Figure 2. Proportion of people 25 years and over with a low education level in 2014 (lower secondary school level).

New definition of education level

In 2006, the Norwegian definition of education level was changed to adapt Norwegian statistics to international guidelines. The criteria for attaining upper secondary level became stricter, which led to 13 per cent of Norway’s population being downgraded from upper to lower secondary school level. All statistics referred to in this article are based on the new definition.

International comparisons

Norway was previously at the top among 30 OECD-countries for the proportion of 25-64 year olds with at least upper secondary education. When the new definitions of education level were introduced, Norway was positioned a little further down the list. In 2009, there were 13 OECD-countries with a greater proportion than Norway with at least upper secondary education. If we look at the proportion with tertiary education alone, there are six OECD-countries that have a higher proportion than Norway. Canada, Israel and Japan have the highest proportions of 25-64 year olds with a tertiary education, 50, 45 and 44 per cent respectively. In Norway, 37 per cent of 25-64 year olds have a tertiary education.

Education and health

The lower the education level, the higher women and men score on risk factors for cardiovascular diseases: smoking, body mass index, blood pressure and cholesterol. These differences are independent of age. This comes from a study of 48 000 women and men by the Norwegian Institute of Public Health (Strand, 2006).

Mortality from cardiovascular diseases has fallen dramatically since the mid-1970s, but the reduction is greatest for those with a higher education. That more smoke, have higher BMI, blood pressure and cholesterol can probably explain the higher mortality in groups with low socioeconomic status than among those with higher status.

Many causes of death show the same tendency as cardiovascular diseases, with lower death rates among the highly educated, although breast cancer is an exception. Over the past few decades, women with a higher education have had the highest risk of dying from breast cancer in Norway (Strand, 2005). The same applies to other European countries (Strand, 2007). Women with a university education have around 15 % higher risk of dying from breast cancer than women with a compulsory education. This may be linked to the delay in first-time births and lifestyle in general.

Social health inequalities

Most groups in society have become healthier in the last 30 years. The health benefits have been greatest for those who already had the best health – those with long education, good income and who are in a relationship. The health benefits have not increased as much for those with lower education and income. Therefore inequalities in health have increased, particularly in the last decade.

In 2007, the Ministry of Health and Care Services published a national strategy for minimising social health differences (Report No.20 to the Storting, 2007). As background information for this Parliamentary report, the Norwegian Institute of Public Health compiled a fact report about social inequalities in health (Næss, 2007). The report contains, amongst others, these main points: 

  • Norwegian children and adolescents are in good health. However, there are health differences linked to parental income, education and marital status. 
  • For adults: 
    - There are large differences in self-evaluated health and symptoms of psychological distress. 
    - There are large differences in chronic diseases, that can increase the risk of a premature death 
    - Single men and women with low income and low education are particularly vulnerable to a premature death.
  • Self-evaluated health in the elderly is better than before, but there are clear differences according to education duration. Those with the least education report chronic diseases more often. 
  • Lifestyle plays a large role in motivation and ability to maintain positive habits such as regular physical activity, healthy diet and abstinence or limited use of tobacco and other intoxicants.