Despite the recent expansion of higher education in this country, Switzerland and Turkey are the only European countries that still lag behind the United Kingdom, education figures for 24 industrialised nations disclose.
Even when Britain reaches its target figure of one in three school leavers going into higher education, its participation rate will still be little more than half that of the United States. While 28 per cent of school leavers go into higher education in Britain, 65 per cent do so in the US, 53 per cent in Japan and 52 per cent in Australia.
However, the United Kingdom has more graduates each year than any other European Union country because its highly selective system leads to low drop-out rates. Eighteen per cent of British young people now graduate from university, while just 8 per cent do so in the Netherlands, Austria and Switzerland.
The latest figures from the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD), which relate to 1991, include all the European countries as well as Japan, Australia, Canada and the US. They show the UK has a worse record than many of its competitors on nursery education, teacher-pupil ratios, vocational education and spending on school buildings, as well as higher education.
Less than 4 per cent of Britain's education budget goes on nursery schools, compared with 11 per cent in Norway, and 10 per cent in France and Belgium.
Britain has 22 pupils per teacher in primary schools and 19 in secondaries, more than almost any other country. France has slightly worse figures for primary schools, and Turkey has 50 pupils per teacher in secondary schools.
Despite recent initiatives to increase the amount of vocational education in Britain, just 20 per cent of 16-year-olds are taking such courses. In Germany the figure is 80 per cent, and Austria, Switzerland, Sweden and Italy all have more than 70 per cent.
Britain spends 5 per cent of its education budget on capital projects, while Switzerland and Germany spend 10 per cent, Spain 11 per cent and Japan almost 17 per cent.
There is some good news for Britain - attainment levels in mathematics and science are higher than those in Ireland, Spain, the US and Portugal, although figures for reading attainment in the UK were not available.
Despite complaints that the UK does not produce enough science and engineering graduates, a quarter of its university leavers have studied these disciplines. In the US, the proportion is 15 per cent, Italy 17 per cent, and Spain 16 per cent.
Dr Martin McLean, a lecturer in comparative education at London University's Institute of Education, said that Britain needed to concentrate on attainment levels and on vocational education. 'Our levels of participation in education after 16 are a major weakness. Our participation in higher education was well below where it ought to be and we are now catching up, but we are still not quite up to the level of the other countries,' he said.
John Patten, Secretary of State for Education, said that Britain spent more on each higher education student than its European competitors:
'Here is evidence of this Government's commitment to the longer term needs of the nation. Our policy of investing in people by expanding higher education is paying off.
'The OECD report will do much to inform the education debate but I urge caution for those taking the messages at face value. These statistics do not tell the whole story.'
Leading article, page 19
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