Page last updated at 23:50 GMT, Friday, 12 September 2008 00:50 UK

UK slipping down graduate league

Mike Baker
The UK now has the 12th highest graduation rate

It was one of Tony Blair's most derided policies. "Social engineering" was the sneer. "Too ambitious" said others.

Getting half of all young people to enter higher education would, so we were told, devalue university degrees.

Graduates would find it difficult to get jobs to match their level of education.

Yet this week's survey of education in the most advanced nations shows the target of getting 50% of young people into university was too high an aim.

In fact, these figures suggest it was not nearly ambitious enough.

Eight years ago the UK had the fourth highest graduation rate amongst industrialised countries. Now it lies in 12th place.

The OECD report, Education At A Glance, shows there has been real growth in the number of young people both entering university and, although it's not necessarily the same thing, graduating.

But the really revealing statistics are those that show that other countries are moving ahead much faster than the UK.

Most western, advanced countries can no longer compete with emerging nations in traditional heavy industries and manufacturing. So the race is on for the "knowledge economy". And the leaders are setting a fast pace.

Let's start with the good news. The proportion of young people entering full degree courses at universities in the UK has continued to rise.

It now stands at 57% (although the OECD statistics are not directly comparable with the UK's way of measuring progress towards the 50% target).

Graduation rates have also improved. Whilst only 24% of the population aged 55-64 has a degree, amongst 25-34-year-olds it is 37%.

But this rate of growth in graduates looks tortoise-like compared to many other countries.

Graduation Olympics

Indeed, eight years ago the UK had the fourth highest graduation rate amongst industrialised countries. Now it lies in 12th place.

The following all have higher graduation rates: Australia, Denmark, Finland, Iceland, Ireland, Italy, the Netherlands, New Zealand, Norway, Poland, and Sweden.

And in the graduation Olympics, we are set to fall even further down the medals table.

If the present rate of increase continues, countries such as the Czech and Slovak republics and Hungary will soon overtake UK graduation rates.

So, isn't it time we revised upwards the 50% target? After all, many countries already have more than 60% of young people entering university.

Now, those who disagreed with the 50% target may argue that just because other countries are raising university participation does not mean that the UK should do the same.

In the past, they have pointed to the difficulty some British graduates have getting jobs whilst noting how hard it can be to find a plumber or an electrician.

Mind you, the moaning from the "I can't find a plumber" brigade seems to have subsided somewhat since the arrival of skilled manual workers from Eastern Europe.

This, in itself, is a sharp reminder of how the mobility of labour has underlined the need to stay ahead in the qualifications game.

On average, UK graduates still earn more - and are more likely to be in work - than their peers who did not go to university

If you had taken some commentators' advice and opted to train as a plumber or construction worker instead of going to university a few years ago, you might now be regretting that decision.

High-level, flexible skills are the best insurance in a fast-changing job market.

In fact, not only do we not have an over-supply of graduates, the OECD report suggests we still need more.

Amongst the working-age population in the UK there are 14% more skilled jobs than people with university degrees.

The evidence also suggests individuals still gain by having a degree, although - inevitably as the number of graduates grows - it may not offer the same employment advantage as it did when only a minority went to university.

On average, UK graduates still earn more - and are more likely to be in work - than their peers who did not go to university.

The earnings premium of graduates stands at 59% over non-graduates. Of course, in determining the real economic value of a degree you need to factor in the costs of fees and the delayed start to paid work.

Election issue?

Yet, even with these costs taken into account, there is still an average financial return of 14% for UK graduates.

So, the interesting question now is how this will shape policies for the next election.

With public spending under pressure, further expansion may only be affordable if students are required to make an even larger private contribution towards the cost of getting a degree.

So which, if any, political parties will commit themselves to raising the university participation rate from 50% to 60% needed to keep up with other countries?

And which of them, if any, will recommend either an increase in taxation or a lifting of the current ceiling on university tuition fees in order to pay for further expansion?

With decisions of such an uncomfortable nature, the political parties may not choose to make it one of the biggest issues at the next election. But it should be.

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