The figures are revealed in the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development’s annual Education at a Glance report, published today.
But the OECD also says that the UK had reached an important tipping point by 2012, with more people going on to tertiary education than ending their education at earlier levels.
Andreas Schleicher, the OECD’s deputy director for education and skills, described England as “one of the very few countries that has figured out a sustainable approach to higher education financing”. However, the data in Education at a Glance for the UK covers 2011 – the year before fees were raised to £9,000 and direct public funding was slashed.
The report shows that the percentage of GDP spent on tertiary education in the UK fell – from 1.3 per cent in 2010 to 1.2 per cent in 2011, below the OECD average of 1.6 per cent.
Canada overtook the US as the biggest spender on tertiary education, increasing its GDP spend from 2.6 per cent in 2009 to 2.8 per cent in 2010 – the latest year for which figures are available for the country – compared with its neighbour’s static 2.7 per cent in 2011.
South Korea is the next highest spending nation after Canada and the US, with 2.6 per cent of GDP going to tertiary education.
In terms of spending per student in tertiary education, the UK spent about $14,000 (£8,700) per student, putting it in 15th place. The US led the way, spending $26,000 per student, followed by Switzerland with around $23,000 per student.
Sally Hunt, the University and College Union general secretary, said: “This report shows that the UK is falling behind its competitors in terms of investment on students. If we are to continue to compete with America, Japan and European neighbours like France and the Netherlands, we need to invest more in education.”
The OECD also says of the UK: “Until 2008, the proportion of adults with an upper secondary diploma as their highest level of attainment was larger than that of adults with a tertiary degree.
“With the expansion of access to tertiary education in recent years, that balance shifted: by 2012, 41 per cent of adults, including 48 per cent of 25-34 year-olds, in the United Kingdom had earned a tertiary qualification – a larger proportion of adults than had ended their formal schooling at any other level of education.”
Mr Schleicher said that for men in the UK, the net returns for going through tertiary education compared with leaving after secondary education were $250,000 per person, the fifth highest level in the OECD.
This showed higher education was “a very good investment for individuals”, he added.
There was also a return of about $120,000 for taxpayers per person reaching tertiary education in the UK, the OECD figures showed.
“The fact the public puts money into higher education actually is a good investment too,” said Mr Schleicher.
He also described growth in higher education participation and investment in Poland and Iceland as “very impressive”.
Meanwhile, the report says that the UK’s share of the international student market grew from 10.7 per cent in 2000 to 12.6 per cent in 2012.