Leader: UK must spend to regain its lead

September 17, 2004

International comparisons are more valuable for the ammunition they provide for campaigners than for the precision of the information they contain - the statistics are often dated, national systems too varied to be confident that they paint an accurate picture. Although the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development's annual survey of education is not immune from such problems, it is sufficiently long-established at least to reveal trends. Where the UK is concerned, the most striking of these is the continued low investment in universities, particularly in relation to the individual and social returns conferred by higher education.

However, Education at a Glance shows two particular areas in which the UK has led the field but where other industrialised nations are catching up and, in some cases, overtaking. One is the graduation rate and the other the market share for the recruitment of overseas students. Both findings would be worrying if they showed deterioration in UK performance rather than improvements elsewhere, begging questions about the link with levels of investment. In neither case can blame for the UK's relative decline be laid entirely at the Government's door. Visa restrictions were eased to help the early achievement of an international enrolment target set by Tony Blair; the new pecking order reflects greater competition in a truly global market. The proliferation of continental university courses taught in English  is just one example of this. Vice-chancellors have the right to expect further assistance from ministers - for example, in more serious engagement with the issues flowing from the Bologna Agreement - but it is not primarily a question of money.

The graduation rate is a different matter. Although the UK's central problem with educational participation is at sixth-form level, rather than at university, the dropout rate has been creeping up at a time when other countries are moving in the opposite direction. The Government's policy of widening participation in higher education is bound to have that effect unless non-traditional students receive more support. Without proper consideration of the needs of part-time students and the achievement of parity with other OECD nations in higher education budgets, the UK will continue to slip down the international rankings.

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