Expansion slows but despite a shrinking share of the international cake, Britain remains an attractive destination both for foreign students and for academics
Britain's rapid university expansion has slowed and is falling behind other industrialised countries, according to figures released this week.
For the first time, the UK's 48 per cent university student enrolment rate has dropped below the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development average of 53 per cent. Several countries, including Australia, Sweden, Iceland and Finland, are achieving 70 per cent participation.
The figures reveal that student expansion in many countries is outstripping that of the UK, despite febrile debate about the benefits of the Government's drive to attract half of 18 to 30-year-olds on to degree courses in England by 2010. Analysts from the OECD say that current participation rates suggest more countries are now likely to catch up and outstrip UK graduation rates.
Enrolments grew by 18 per cent between 1995 and 2002 in the UK, well below the average of 28 per cent across all 30 OECD countries. Korea, Hungary, the Czech Republic, the Slovak Republic, Greece and Hungary all achieved increases of 58-97 per cent during the period.
Andreas Schleicher, head of the OECD's indicators and analysis division, said: "The comparative advantage the UK has achieved over the past ten years in graduations has diminished not because less is happening but because more is happening elsewhere."
Analysts are unable to find a correlation between steeper tuition fees and participation rates. They point out that Australia experienced a massive increase in enrolments while fees rose markedly, while Germany saw no increase in participation despite the absence of fees.
But they concede that a much higher proportion (83 per cent) of UK entrants complete their degrees successfully than the OECD average of 70 per cent, a survival rate bettered only in Japan, Turkey and Ireland.
The benefits of earlier expansion and investment are paying off: UK graduate earnings are 78 per cent higher on average than those for people with only secondary education, a differential exceeded only in Hungary (135 per cent) and the US (91 per cent). They also stand a much stronger chance of finding jobs.
There is no evidence that the labour market for degrees is reaching saturation, and the UK is among a clutch of countries with falling unemployment and rising earnings among graduates.
Across the OECD, women now account for 57 per cent of university-level graduates, mainly in the humanities, health and welfare. They represent up to 30 per cent of the total in mathematics, computer science, engineering, manufacturing and construction. But, at 43 per cent, the UK tops the OECD table for women science graduates in the 25-34 age group.
Between 1995 and 2003 UK higher education spending grew by just 18 per cent, only half the rate of the average across the 30 OECD countries. But spending per student remains above the average, largely because of shorter courses. The UK increase just matched the below-average growth in student enrolment so that spending per student remained steady between 1995 and 2002, while the average rose by 12 per cent.
The UK is still the second most attractive destination for foreign students after the US, but its market share has declined faster than that of any other country, from 16.2 per cent in 1998 to 13.5 per cent, marginally ahead of Germany.
Education at a Glance: OECD Indicators 2005 , OECD Publication, 2 rue André-Pascal, 75775 Paris Cedex 16, France. www.oecd.org