UK slips from 3rd to 11th in graduation table

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The Independent Online

The United Kingdom has slipped down an international educational league table from third to 11th place because such a relatively low proportion of young people are graduating from university, compared to other countries.

Nine years ago the UK was near the top of the developed world countries in its percentage of youngsters graduating. But this year it only made 11th in theOrganisation for Economic for Co-operation and Development’s Education at a Glance report.

Its graduation rate did rise, from 37 per cent in 2000 to 39 per cent now but was overtaken by other countries, with the average graduation rate for OECD members rising from 18 per cent in 1995 to 39 per cent in 2007. Top place was Iceland, where 63 per cent of students graduates.

The report, published yesterday, also confirmed that the UK has one of the lowest rates of 15 to 19-year-olds participatiing in full-time or part-time education, at 71 per cent. Many of these youngsters are likely to end up as NEETs (not in education, employment or training). Only Mexico and Turkey fared worse than the UK in that category, with 50 per cent and 47 per cent of youngsters in education respectively. The OECD average is 82 per cent.

The figures coincided with the prospect of more than 130,000 candidates eligible for a university place through clearing being turned away from UK higher education institutions this year.

They also prompted a call from OECD leaders for the Government to use the recession as a time for more investment in education to help youngsters acquire the skills to get out of the recession.

A similar picture emerged in the provision of nursery places, where the UK was one of the world leaders at the turn of the century but is now down to 11th place as places for 90 per cent of children aged four or under.

“From 1995 to 2000 the UK was one of the most dynamic providers,” said Andreas Schleicher, head of the education indicators and analysis division of the OECD’s education directorate. “The UK has done better but others have improved at a faster rate.”

Yesterday’s report also showed that on average a male student who completes this university degree will earn $186,000 gross more throughout his career compared to someone who quit education after secondary level. For a woman, the figure is $134,000.

John Bangs, assistant secretary of the National Union of Teachers, added: “The UK has only reached the OECD average on spending.

“Any Government either now or in the future that considers cutting education spending as a result of the economic crisis will return the UK to the bottom of the table.

“It would be insanity bearing in mind the still obvious financial rewards for young people who go into higher education.”

The figures also show a relatively high drop out rate from further and higher education in the UK, particularly in vocational courses.

The report also shows that the UK still has among the largest primary school class sizes in the Western world with an average of 25.8 pupils per class, putting it 22nd of the 25 countries in the table. Secondary schools had an average class size of 23.7, putting the UK 15th out of 25.

Schools Minister Diana Johnson insisted that the international report painted a positive picture of the UK’s progress in education and skills but added that there were some areas for improvement.