Graduate tables signal serious problems in store

Britain is tumbling down the graduation rate league table of the world’s richest nations. Once we produced the third highest number of graduates of any OECD country but today we have fallen to 11th position – and all that has happened in the last decade.

So, the message from the OECD’s annual “Education at a Glance” report of 30 leading countries is that we have no cause for complacency – and, more to the point, we should be doing something to put things right by investing more, not less, in higher education.

Ministers want to highlight the bits of the report that present the UK in a favourable light. The Universities minister David Lammy says, for example, that the number of British adults with a degree is above average and that they enjoy a better return on their qualifications than most comparable countries – but that misses the point that we are falling behind our competitors when it comes to student numbers at a time when we can ill afford to do so.

The UK still puts large numbers of students through university – in fact, it educates more students than ever – but other countries are now outperforming us. We are failing to make the progress that we used to make while other countries are catching up and overtaking us. Sweden, Iceland and Portugal – all have higher graduation rates than Britain.

This is bad news for the future. In a time of recession, the government should be investing more in higher education, first because prices are lower in a downturn so it costs less to invest.

As OECD head of analysis Andreas Schleicher puts it: “At a moment of financial crisis, when opportunity costs are low, that’s when the relative costs are low, and there is relative competition for labour market entry, countries who want to position themselves ideally for after a crisis, now is a moment to do so.”

But, second, the way to recover from recession is to give people superior skills to prepare them better for the knowledge economy in which we live. That will get them off the dole and into work, and give them the wherewithal to set up the new companies that will be needed in future.

As it is, all the talk is of cuts. The government capped the number of additional student places this year at a time when record numbers of students were applying for university. And the UK spending on higher education is below average, below that of France, the USA and Canada. Moreover, universities are expected to suffer cuts in the months to come.

The brave and clever thing for ministers to do would be to plan for the long-term and to resist the temptation to cut higher education because it is easier politically.

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