Page last updated at 01:19 GMT, Wednesday, 2 December 2009

UK 'behind in qualification race'

Student numbers have risen in the UK - but not as quickly as other countries

The UK is being overtaken in the international race for a well-qualified workforce, a report from a lecturers' union has said.

The University and College Union says that, in terms of the proportion of young people in education, the UK is slipping into the "relegation zone".

It points to figures from the OECD to show the UK has been overtaken by countries such as Hungary and Portugal.

The government says record numbers are studying at university in the UK.

But the lecturers' union says that the UK is being outpaced by other countries which have been funding a more rapid expansion in student numbers.

Academic race

Using data published by the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD), the union's report looks at how the UK compares to other countries in terms of young people in education.

We have to face up to the fact that we cannot remain a first-world country with third-world levels of participation in education
Sally Hunt, lecturers' union leader

In terms of people in their 20s in education, in 1995 the UK was in 15th place out of 30 developed countries - but by 2007 this had fallen to 25th out of 30.

At the top of this table are the northern European countries - Finland, Denmark, Iceland and Sweden.

Among the 15 to 19 age group, in 1995 the UK was 19th out of 30 industrialised countries in terms of the proportion in education. By 2007, the ranking had slipped down to 26th out of 30.

Heading this table of youngsters in education are Belgium, Netherlands, France and Germany.

The OECD's annual education report had shown the accelerating international investment in education - with the number of university students almost doubling in industrialised countries since the mid-1990s.

'Shocking decline'

But the UCU report accuses the UK of failing to keep pace with this academic race.

It says there has been a "shocking decline" and that "unless urgent and decisive action is taken the UK risks being the poor man of the developed world and ill-prepared for life in the new knowledge economy".

It says that the UK has been overtaken by countries including Portugal, New Zealand, Austria, Switzerland, Korea, the Republic of Ireland, Greece, Hungary and the Czech Republic.

The UCU is arguing for increased investment in raising the levels of education in the UK - and is setting up a cross-party forum to promote this.

It says universities and colleges are worth £87bn a year to the UK economy and "more must be done to ensure that all young people have the opportunity to benefit from them".

A review of university funding has been launched - which will consider the level of fees paid by students - but this will not report until after the general election.

"We have to face up to the fact that we cannot remain a first-world country with third-world levels of participation in education.

"Other developed countries are pulling away from us and the developing nations are catching up and looking like they will over take us," says the union's general secretary, Sally Hunt.

In response, a spokeswoman for the Westminster government said there were record levels of 16 to 18 year olds in education and training and more people than ever were in university.

This year will see £4.9bn spent on adult skills, £15bn on universities and £6.8bn on further education and training.

"Our ambition is that three-quarters of the population go to university or get an advanced technical qualification by the age of 30," said the spokeswoman.

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