The UK is storming ahead in the expansion stakes, but the competition is still fierce, warns the OECD. David Jobbins reports
The UK's university expansion has been among the fastest in the industrialised world. The Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development predicts that this growth will continue despite a drop in spending on higher education relative to national wealth.
But it warns in its annual Education at a Glance report that other countries are closing the gap on the UK's internationally envied high degree-completion rates and increased participation, eroding a relative advantage over competitor nations.
In the early 1990s, Europe tended to have a smaller percentage of graduates than the US, Canada and Australia. Since 1991, the UK, Australia, Belgium, Canada, France, Ireland, Korea, Norway, Spain and Sweden have all experienced double-digit growth. Germany and the UK started the decade with some 20 per cent of highly qualified 25 to 34-year-olds, but while the UK proportion is now approaching a third, the picture has barely changed in Germany.
With the exception of France and Germany, participation in higher education grew in all OECD countries between 1995 and 2001. With 37 per cent of the graduate-age population, the UK ranks well above the OECD average for graduation rates, standing seventh among the 17 countries with comparable data for 2001.
The OECD predicts that this trend will continue - figures for 2001 suggest that four out of ten school-leavers are likely to enrol on tertiary education programmes leading to a bachelor's or higher university-level degree. In New Zealand, Finland, Sweden, Poland and Australia, the proportion is two-thirds or more, against 45 per cent in the UK.
But the OECD warns that the rate of expansion is putting considerable pressure on education finances. In eight out of 22 OECD countries, including the UK, spending on universities and other higher education colleges has failed to keep pace, leaving spending per student to fall in real terms. Combined public and private spending on higher education institutions as a percentage of gross national product fell in the UK between 1995 and 2000, from 1.2 per cent to 1 per cent. In 1995, the UK was tenth among the 25 OECD states for which information was available. By 2000, it had fallen to 19th out of 29.
But the relative changes have not affected the performance of UK universities. With an 83 per cent survival rate for first degrees, the UK is up with world leaders such as Japan (94 per cent), Turkey (88 per cent) and Ireland (85 per cent), with Italy trailing at 42 per cent. Between 1995 and 2001, the percentage of UK 25 to 34-year-olds with a degree has increased steadily from 23 per cent to 29 per cent of the age group. Some OECD states performed better. Over the same period, Korea increased from 29 per cent to 40 per cent, the US from 34 to 39 per cent, Finland from 35 to 38 per cent, and Australia from 25 to 34 per cent. But in Italy growth was from a modest 7 per cent to 12 per cent, while Portugal recorded no growth at all.
In Korea, the highest spending country, private investment in higher education has helped push it to the top of the league, along with the US, which commits the same proportion of public spending as the European Union, but tops it up with significant non-state resources.
The UK is one of only a handful of countries where private spending on higher education fell between 1995 and 2000.
There are significant personal benefits attached to a university degree, particularly in the UK. A degree is more likely to ensure employment, according to the report. UK university graduates have higher employment rates - 93 per cent for men and 87 per cent for women - than unqualified school-leavers (67 per cent and 51 per cent).
Higher education also carries a salary premium - UK graduates aged 30 to 44 command a 61 per cent premium over those with secondary school qualifications. This return is exceeded only in the Czech Republic, Hungary, Portugal and the US, according to the OECD.
The OECD records that women moved ahead of men in university enrolments and graduation in 1990s. But it warns that certain disciplines are still male preserves, with women concentrated in the humanities, arts, education, health and welfare. Less than a third of mathematics and computer science students and under a quarter of those studying engineering, manufacturing and construction are women. Men are also more likely to receive doctorates.
It expresses concern that these gender differences are mirrored in the aspirations of 15-year-olds. "Career aspirations of boys were far more often associated with physics, mathematics, or engineering (on average 18 per cent of boys versus 5 per cent of girls) while girls more frequently expected occupations related to life sciences and health (20 per cent of girls compared with only 7 per cent of boys)."
The general drift of the report was welcomed by Alan Johnson, the minister for higher education, as vindication of the government's tuition fees proposals. "Our universities have one of the best success rates among our competitors and one of the highest graduate premiums. Our higher education is clearly a success story and so it is fair to ask those graduates that benefit exclusively from such advantages to contribute something extra.
"Most of our main competitors have been expanding university entry because they know it is good for their economy and society. If they are expanding, then surely it would be foolish for us to do the opposite?"
But not everything was good. "The OECD may highlight our success at higher education but it also highlights our low participation post-16. There is a worrying gulf," he said.
"Our ability to get people into higher education is lacking. Birth not worth still determines what sort of opportunities you get in life. Too many youngsters drop out after compulsory education and this is one of the major barriers to widening participation."
Education at a Glance OECD Indicators 2003, OECD Publications Service, 2 rue Andre-Pascal, 75775 Paris, Cedex 16, France, ISBN 92 64 10233 7.