British universities are recruiting more students at home and abroad, and producing highly employable graduates. Their problem, according to this week's international comparisons by the OECD, is that their success is being replicated elsewhere. Other countries are catching up and some are overtaking. The OECD's message to the UK should not be interpreted as a reprimand for failure, but a warning for the future.
It may be that the rate of expansion in the decade up to 2003 has been faster in a number of other industrialised countries. But does that matter? Growth continues, if at a slower, sustainable rate. According to the OECD's method of calculation, the UK's participation rate has already reached 48 per cent. But what is appropriate for the UK in 2005 is different from what is appropriate in Sweden or Korea, both of which now have higher rates.
What is desirable in 1998 may not have the same compelling force seven years later. A target is exactly that - something at which to aim and no more.
To ignore the other OECD indicators in which the UK performs strongly would also be to misrepresent the message of the report. Completion rates, for example, are among the best in the world. UK universities have taken on expansion without the waste inherent in the high dropout rates of some mass higher education systems. The completion rate of 83 per cent is bettered only in Japan, Turkey and Ireland, and is well above the OECD average of 70 per cent.
UK graduates go on to secure good jobs with a high personal return on the investment they share with society, out-performing all other countries except the US and Hungary. And the report suggests that the role played by university education in transforming the social and economic performance of women in the UK is unchallenged.
The fact that some countries have gone further in expanding higher education should give pause for thought in government and universities. But this is not a race that every country will want to join. Even assuming that further rapid expansion could be financed, school standards, social consequences and the economic payback to individuals and the nation would all have to be weighed before the starting gun was fired in Westminster.