David Jobbins looks at the UK's rise to the top of the OECD degree league.
A clear correlation between the successful expansion of higher education and the length of degree emerges from the OECD data.
Andreas Schleicher, lead author of the report, rejected the suggestion that a consequence of admitting more students was a higher dropout rate. He compared the UK's experience of expansion, one of the highest entry rates across the OECD, coupled with one of the best (80 per cent-plus) completion rates, with Italy where "very few people get in and 60 per cent of them fail".
He added: "In Austria, very few people get into the system and lots of them still fail. This is an effect of a lack of differentiation in the qualification structure: you impose a rigid system on students and few get in while lots drop out."
Across the OECD, about 26 per cent of the relevant age group complete a university education. Australia, Finland, Iceland, Poland, the UK and the US exceed the OECD 33 per cent, while the Czech Republic, Denmark and Switzerland struggle to reach 15 per cent.
"In countries with higher graduation rates, the majority of students complete medium-length programmes (three to less than five years)," Mr Schleicher said. "In Austria, the Czech Republic, Germany, Italy and Switzerland, the majority of students complete longer programmes (of at least five years) and graduation rates are below 20 per cent."
On average, one graduate in three of the 28 countries surveyed is in the social sciences, business or law. The proportion of students in science-related fields ranges from less than 19 per cent in Hungary, Iceland, the Netherlands, Norway and the US to 34 per cent in Finland and Germany and 42 per cent in Korea.
Women average 54 per cent of graduates. This rises to more than two-thirds in the humanities, arts, education, health and welfare. Less than a third of maths and computer science graduates and less than a fifth of engineering manufacturing and construction graduates are female. In PhD programmes, men outnumber women everywhere except in Italy.
While OECD countries spend an average of $11,422 (£7,325) per student, this is distorted by the significantly higher amount allocated by the US and Switzerland. For "typical" OECD countries only, the amount per student is reduced to $9,210. Spending ranges from $3,912 in Poland to $19,220 in the US. Canada, Korea and the US spend more than 2 per cent of their GDP on higher education.
SURVIVAL RATES FOR UNIVERSITY STUDIES