David Jobbins looks at the UK's rise to the top of the OECD degree league
Britain's shorter degrees are the key to reduced dropout rates and offer the highest rate of return to individual graduates, the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development has concluded.
Data assembled by the 30-member organisation for its 10th annual Education at a Glance report confirmed the relative efficiency of the three or four-year degree, compared with the longer study periods endemic in Europe.
The numbers on higher education courses in the UK rose by 12 per cent between 1995 and 2000, even though there was a 3 per cent decline in the relevant age group.
But despite the expansion of the past decade, the proportion of the population with a degree is still not as great and is not growing as fast as in some of the other countries examined. Just over 30 per cent of the UK's 25 to 34-year-olds have a degree, compared with more than 50 per cent in Canada, almost 50 per cent in Ireland and Japan, and 40 per cent in Korea and Finland.
But that is only 2 per cent or so higher than the proportion of 45 to 54-year-olds with a degree. Korea made the greatest improvement in boosting the proportion with a degree between the two generations, with 12 per cent of 45 to 54-year-olds with a degree, followed by Ireland and Canada (30 per cent) and Spain (under 20 per cent to almost 40 per cent).
On average, across the OECD just 1 per cent of the population gains a PhD or similar advanced research qualification (1.3 per cent in the UK and the US, compared with 2.6 per cent in Switzerland).
Higher education minister Margaret Hodge said: "Whether we look at graduation rates, or the extra income graduates can expect to enjoy at work, the UK outperforms our competitor countries."
National Union of Students president Mandy Telford said: "UK undergraduates contribute almost double the average of other OECD nations to the cost of their university education. Top-up fees would force them to pay the most."
Education at a Glance 2002 , OECD, 2 rue André-Pascal, 75775 Paris CEDEX 16, €49.