UK universities rank below the OECD average in the proportion of funding they spend on salaries and their student-to-staff ratios are high. Tony Tysome reports.
The UK spends a lower proportion of its university funding on lecturers' salaries than most comparable countries around the world, according to a report by the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development.
The annual Education at a Glance report, published this week, shows that under a third of higher education resources in the UK are spent on teaching staff, compared with an average of 42.7 per cent across OECD countries.
Lecturers in the UK also have to cope with higher student-to-staff ratios than most other OECD countries.
With a student-to-staff ratio of 18.2:1 compared with an average 15.7:1, the UK ranks 17th with Poland out of 22 countries that submitted data in this area.
The UK has a stronger showing in other aspects of higher education covered by the giant compendium of comparable national statistics, including its share of international students worldwide, where it ranks second only to the US.
It also performs well on student continuation and graduation rates, and it produces a higher proportion of science graduates than most other OECD countries. Its graduates continue to reap the financial benefits of having a degree.
But a relatively weak showing in indicators that are designed to measure widening participation and access to higher education - along with figures that some have taken to indicate under-resourcing of staff - have brought calls for more investment to prevent the UK falling behind its competitors.
The University and College Union said that the report shows that public spending on higher education in the UK as a proportion of gross domestic product is not only lower than that of the US, but also below both OECD and European averages.
Sally Hunt, UCU's general secretary, said: "The UK cannot afford to be left behind when it comes to funding our universities. Yet we are investing considerably less of our GDP than our competitor countries, we have some of the largest class sizes in the world and are investing minimal amounts of money earmarked for higher education on our staff.
"If we are to maintain a world-class system we have to stop kidding ourselves that we can do it on the cheap."
Universities UK said that although the OECD report showed the UK performing well in key areas, it also revealed that it was being overtaken by many competitor countries in public investment levels. UUK said it was also concerned by the report's findings that only 32 per cent of 15-year-olds in the country expect to go to university. This places the UK at the bottom of the OECD league on this measure.