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UK plummets down graduate league table

7 September 2010 | last updated: 11 December 2015

A report released today by the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) reveals that the UK went from having the third highest graduation rate amongst industrialised countries in 2000 to 15th place in 2008*.

In the space of eight years, the UK has been overtaken by Iceland, Poland, the Slovak Republic, the Czech Republic, the Netherlands, Japan, Ireland, Portugal, the US, Sweden, Denmark and Norway. Responding to the Education at a Glance 2010 report, UCU warned that the UK is in danger of being left behind as other countries invest in their universities and students to better compete in the high-skilled global knowledge economy.
The UK is now below the OECD average for graduation rates. In 2000 it was a world leader, nine percentage points above average. The report comes less than a month after record numbers of qualified A-level students were denied a place at university because the coalition government refused to fund sufficient additional places and UCU warned that consigning a generation to the 'scrapheap of inactivity' would have a serious impact on the country's ability to remain a major player on the global stage.
The report says that 'labour market demand for highly qualified workers has grown significantly and countries with high graduation rates at the tertiary level are also those most likely to develop or maintain a highly skilled labour force'**. UCU pointed to the example of America, where Barack Obama has pledged that by 2020 the US will have the highest proportion of university graduates in the world^.
Key findings from report:

  • In 2000 the UK had the third highest graduation rate (37%), along with Denmark and Norway; only Finland (41%) and New Zealand (50%) were higher.
  • In 2008 the UK had the 15th highest graduation rate (34.9%) and has been overtaken by countries such as Poland and the Slovak Republic
  • In 2000 the UK (37%) was nine percentage points higher than the OECD average (28%)
  • In 2008 the UK (35%) was three percentage points below the OECD average (38%)

UCU general secretary, Sally Hunt, said: 'Today's report shows a worrying decline in the UK's standing in the world of education. We have plummeted down the graduate league table, going from a major player to a relegation candidate in less than a decade. The coalition government's refusal to fund sufficient university places this summer will come back to haunt us.

'Unless urgent and decisive action is taken to reverse the punitive cuts planned for further and higher education then the situation is going to get much worse. Other countries are preparing to play a leading role in the new knowledge economy while we risk consigning a generation to the scrapheap of inactivity and being left behind.'


*Table A3.2, page 69, OECD Education at a Glance 2010
**Page 60, OECD, Education at a Glance 2010