In less than a decade the UK graduation rate has risen from under 20 per cent to 35 per cent. David Jobbins reports on new figures that reflect the expansion of British higher education and its attraction to overseas students
Britain has the highest graduation rate in the European Union and, for the first time, a larger proportion of young people graduating from university than the United States, according to figures released this week by the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development.
Education at a Glance 2000, the latest volume of OECD indicators, shows that across the member countries more young people than ever are entering higher education.
But, while more than one-third of young people received university degrees in Norway, the United Kingdom, the Netherlands and New Zealand, fewer than one in six completed their studies in Turkey, Mexico, the Czech Republic, Austria, Italy and Germany.
Across the OECD, enrolments in higher education rose by more than one-fifth between 1990 and 1997 in all but five countries, and in eight countries by more than 50 per cent. Nearly one in four young people now completes university-level education, but, on average, about one-third of all entrants leave university without a degree.
With a graduate rate of 35 per cent, the UK is now second only to Norway (38 per cent) and, for the first time, in 1998 overtook the US graduation rate (32 per cent). At the beginning of the 1990s the UK university graduation rate was below 20 per cent, compared with about 30 per cent in the US. OECD officials say this rise is not just because of an increasing proportion of school-leavers entering higher education, but because more than 80 per cent of those who do, emerge with a degree - a completion rate that is bettered only by Japan (90 per cent) and well ahead of the OECD average of 67 per cent.
While the pattern of subjects studied at university in the UK is similar to that in many other OECD countries, the percentage of graduates in computer-related fields (4 per cent) is almost twice the OECD average, and there are relatively more UK students taking life sciences, physical sciences and maths.
The incentive to complete a degree course is clear, with graduates enjoying better protection from unemployment, and typically earning between 20 per cent and 100 per cent more than those who left secondary school without five GCSEs at A to C level or the equivalent.
While unemployment for unqualified school-leavers in the UK is above the OECD average, the rate for 20 to 24-year-old graduates (7 per cent) and 25 to 29-year old graduates (3 per cent) is less than half the OECD average.
Male graduates in the UK aged 30 to 44 earn, on average, 57 per cent more than men of the same age who left secondary school with five or more GCSEs at grade A to C or equivalent. For women, the differential is more than 90 per cent.
Spending on university and other advanced forms of study secured the largest share of the growth in education spending in the 1990s. Public spending on tertiary education within the OECD grew by 20 per cent on average, whereas in Austria, Ireland, Portugal, Spain and the UK it rose by more than 40 per cent. In many countries, however, enrolment in tertiary education grew even faster than spending, most notably in Portugal and the UK.
As much as 23 per cent of total expenditure by tertiary institutions now comes from private sources. In Australia, Hungary, Ireland, Spain and the UK the private share increased by 50 per cent or more between 1990 and 1997. However, the proportion of spending on tertiary institutions from private sources varied widely between countries: while in Japan, Korea and the United States it was between half and three-quarters of the total, it was 10 per cent or less in Denmark, Germany, Iceland, Norway, Portugal and Sweden.
Andreas Schleicher, head of the statistics division of the OECD, said:
"These indicators are not about the ranking of countries. We are using the indicators as a tool to provide insights into the way education systems function."
When the indicators were last published, in 1998, officials were stung by criticism by Italy of data that showed its completion rates to be the worst in the OECD. This year Italy again has one of the highest non-completion rates but Mr Schleicher said Italy had now not only accepted the figures, but was now using the OECD methodology for measuring non-completion.
Baroness Blackstone, minister of state for higher education, said: "The report confirms that the UK is a world leader in higher education. The number of students in higher education has doubled over the past decade and there is a comparatively low level of non-completion of degrees.
"We are determined, however, to increase participation in higher education further and want 50 per cent of young people to have benefited from higher education by the time they are 30. We also want our high-quality provision to be available to those overseas and aim to increase by 2005 the number of overseas students from outside the EU in UK higher education by 50,000."
Education at a Glance 2000: OECD Indicators, OECD Publications, 2 rue Andre-Pascal, 75775 Paris CEDEX 16. E42 (Pounds 25).