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Last Updated: Tuesday, 18 September 2007, 09:18 GMT 10:18 UK
UK slips back in graduate numbers
Bar chart of graduation rates
Comparing graduation rates from a sample of countries in the OECD data
The UK is being overtaken by international competitors in the drive for more graduates, an annual report on education systems shows.

The Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development says the UK has slipped from the third highest proportion of graduates to 10th.

The survey also found that teenagers in the UK had particularly low expectations of going to university.

But the report found that the UK was a world leader in pre-school spending.

This annual report - called Education at a Glance - provides a statistical snapshot of the state of education in the industrialised world.

Falling behind

It shows that in higher education, the UK has increased the number of graduates - but not nearly as rapidly as many of its economic competitors, with countries such as Australia and Poland outstripping the UK in the proportion of young people getting degrees.


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With modern economies emphasising the need for a highly-skilled, well-educated workforce, the survey shows that the UK has been relatively sluggish in its approach - with much less expansion than in countries such as South Korea, the Czech Republic and Hungary.

In terms of young people entering university - as opposed to those actually finishing degree courses - it shows that the UK is even further behind, falling below the OECD average.

While countries such as Australia, New Zealand and the Scandinavian nations have three quarters of young people entering university, the UK figure, using the OECD's definition, is 52%.

Among women, the rates of entering university are even higher. In Iceland, 96% of women go into higher education, in Australia it is 91%.

The survey shows strong evidence that going to university is still linked with much higher earnings - but that teenagers in the UK are unusually pessimistic about their chances of getting into university.

Only 32% of 15-year-olds in the UK expect to go to university - one of the lowest figures throughout the whole OECD.

However the survey also challenges some assumptions about higher education.

UK universities have a high proportion of science students, by international levels, says the OECD. And the UK has one of the highest entry rates into vocational courses.

Early years

At the other end of the age range, the UK spends more than any other country in the industrialised world on pre-school education.

Spending per child on pre-primary education

(for children aged 3+)

  US $
UK 7,924
US 7,896
Austria 6,106
France 4,938
OECD average 4,741
Poland 4,045
Japan 3,945
Using the OECD measure of US dollars, the UK spends $7,896 (3,956) per child per year, compared with $4,417 (2,213) in Sweden and $3,581 (1,794) in Switzerland.

OECD analyst Andreas Schleicher says this emphasis on early years investment is a "wise choice for spending public money".

But it is too early to see how this approach is affecting educational achievement.

In terms of overall education spending, the survey says the UK has seen a consistent series of increases in recent years - but since this started from a "comparatively low base" the current rate of spending is now only marginally above the OECD average.


This global report card has other examples of how classrooms compare.

Primary class sizes in the UK are high by international standards - and teachers' pay in Britain is comparatively high.

But in England they are working harder - as children have unusually long hours in the classroom. An eight-year-old in England spends 880 hours in the classroom compared with 530 hours in Finland.

In response, Higher Education Minister Bill Rammell said: "The figures are encouraging.

"The UK has one of the highest entry rates for vocational higher education and since the higher education figures in the OECD report are from 2005 we expect to see continued increases over the coming years.

"I am pleased to see the figures showing the numbers of students gaining degrees in science have increased."

The chief executive of the vice-chancellors' group Universities UK, Diana Warwick, said the figures showed that the UK remained one of the most attractive destinations for international students.

"We remain second only to the United States in terms of attracting the largest share of international students worldwide.

"However, if we are to keep ahead of our international competitors, the UK must maintain and improve public investment in higher education.

"Many countries are now catching up and indeed overtaking us in this respect."

Why students think university attendance is slipping

Graduates keep higher earnings
18 Sep 07 |  Education
Overseas student numbers double
12 Sep 06 |  Education
Degrees retain earning power
14 Sep 04 |  Education
Girls top of the class worldwide
16 Sep 03 |  Education

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