Student numbers grew more rapidly in the UK in the final 25 years of the 20th century than the average for all European Union countries - but not as fast as in Greece, Ireland, Spain or Portugal, according to figures from the European Commission.
The EC report shows the increase in the enrolment of female students across Europe was far greater than that for males, particularly from the 1980s onwards.
There are now more than 16 million higher education students in the 30 European countries covered by the report. Between 1975-76 and 1999-2000, enrolments in the UK rose by a factor of 2.8, compared with the EU average of 2.2.
Numbers increased by 3.3 in Spain, 3.5 in Ireland, 3.6 in Greece and more than fourfold in Portugal.
By contrast, EU states with a history of broader access to higher education had more modest growth rates, with increases in France, the Netherlands and Germany well below the EU average.
In Germany and France, the numbers have been falling since 1995-96 and in Italy since 1997-98.
The report draws together data from EU and European Economic Area states, together with statistics from the emerging economies of Eastern Europe. In those countries, growth over a shorter period (from 1995-96 to 1999-2000) was far less spectacular, with only Slovenia increasing enrolment by more than 1.5 times.
A quarter of a century ago, women were in a minority in all the current EU and EEA countries for which data were available. The EU average in 1975-76 was roughly three men for every two female students.
Women are now in a majority in most (the exceptions being Germany and, marginally, the Czech Republic). The most dramatic growth in female enrolment is in Iceland, which had six times as many women in higher education in 1999-2000 as in 1975-76. Numbers increased by a factor of five in Greece, Spain, Ireland and Portugal, and by four in Austria, Finland and the UK. France was the first country in which women became a majority, in 1980-81.
The figures show that more women than men graduated in 2000, with Portugal, Iceland, Bulgaria, Cyprus, Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania and Poland graduating seven women for every four men.
Despite the existence of schemes such as Socrates, study outside a student's country of birth is exceptional. On average, just over 2 per cent of students study in another European country. The UK is the most popular host country, with 110,000 students from the EU, EEA and EU accession states, with Germany the second country of choice with almost 70,000.
Fees for tuition, registration or payable to a student organisation are nearly universal, with only Denmark, Greece, Luxembourg, the Czech Republic, Hungary, Malta and Poland requiring no compulsory contribution.
Key Data on Education in Europe, European Commission , website: www.eurydice.org/Doc_intermediaires/indicators/en/frameset_key_data.html
Rate of expansion across Europe 1975-76 to 1999-2000