Decline and Fall - how the UK is being left behind in education

A report from the University and College Union reveals that the UK is one of the least educated nations in the developed world and that its position has worsened considerably since 1995.

Published November 2009

Analysis of the most recent data on young people in education from the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) shows that the UK has been overtaken by countries such as Portugal, New Zealand, the Czech Republic, Hungary and Greece in recent years.

The study shows that the UK has plummeted down international league tables ranking the percentage of young people in education and warns that unless the UK acts decisively now it risks propping up the table and becoming the poor man of the developed world. Universities and colleges are worth £87bn a year to the UK economy, yet the UK is seeing a decline in the percentage of people benefiting from them.

Analysis of the percentage of people aged 15-19 and 20-29 in education has revealed that the UK has slipped from comfortable mid-table into the relegation zone for developed countries. The countries with lowest percentage of young people in education in the developed world are Turkey, Mexico, the UK and Luxembourg (figures for Japan and Canada were unavailable). Twenty-four countries have a higher percentage of young people in education than the UK.

15-19 year-olds

In 1995 the UK was ranked 19th out of the 30 OECD countries with 72% of 15-19 year-olds in education - the same proportion as America - and just 2% below average. However by 2007 the UK only had 71% of 15-19 year-olds in education and was down to 26th out of 30, ahead of only Mexico and Turkey as data was unavailable for Japan and Canada.

There is a real risk of both Mexico and Turkey overtaking the UK and leaving it bottom of the table. In the 12 years that has seen the UK's participation drop by 1%, both Mexico and Turkey have seen considerable rises.

France was the only other nation to see a fall in the percentage of 15-19 year-olds in education during that time. However, despite its fall, France still has a healthy 86% of 15-19 year-olds in education, above the OECD 2007 average of 82%. The UK, by contrast, is now 11% off the average and Portugal, New Zealand, the Czech Republic, Hungary and Greece, who all had a lower percentage of 15-19 year-olds in education than the UK in 1995 have now all overtaken the UK.

Percentage of full-time and part-time students aged 15-19 in public and private institutions in OECD countries 1995

1

Belgium

94

2

Netherlands

89

3

France

89

4

Germany

88

5

Norway

83

6

Sweden

82

7

Finland

81

8

Australia

81

9

Switzerland

80

10

Canada

80

11

Ireland

79

12

Denmark

79

13

Iceland

79

14

Poland

78

15

Korea

75

16

Austria

75

17

Luxembourg

73

18

Spain

73

19

United Kingdom

72

20

United States

72

21

Portugal

68

22

New Zealand

68

23

Czech Republic

66

24

Hungary

64

25

Greece

62

26

Mexico

36

27

Turkey

30

28

Italy

Date not available

29

Japan

Data not available

30

Slovak Republic

Data not available

OECD average

74

Percentage of full-time and part-time students aged 15-19 in public and private institutions in OECD countries 2007

1

Belgium

94

2

Poland

93

3

Czech Republic

90

4

Ireland

90

5

Netherlands

89

6

Hungary

89

7

Germany

88

8

Finland

88

9

Norway

87

10

Sweden

87

11

Korea

87

12

France

86

13

Slovak Republic

86

14

Switzerland

84

15

Iceland

84

16

Denmark

83

17

Australia

82

18

Spain

80

19

Italy

80

20

United States

80

21

Greece

80

22

Austria

79

23

Portugal

77

24

New Zealand

75

25

Luxembourg

74

26

United Kingdom

71

27

Mexico

50

28

Turkey

47

29

Japan

Data not available

30

Canada

Data not available

OECD average

82

20-29 year-olds

The story is not any more encouraging when figures for people aged 20-29 are analysed. Once again the UK has plummeted down the international league table for people in education. In 1995 18% of 20-29 year-olds in the UK were in education, 12 years later (2007) the figure had, like for the 15-19 year-olds, dropped by 1% (down to 17% for 20-29 year-olds). The drop, coupled with other countries' improved participation rates meant that the UK has dropped from a mi-ranking 15th out of 30 in 1995 down to 25th out of 30 in 2007.

As data was unavailable for Japan and Canada again, this means only three countries are below the UK. Two of them are again Turkey and Mexico, with Luxembourg propping up the table. Luxembourg also scored badly at 15-19 year-olds - it was just one place above the UK. This means that in 2007 the countries with lowest percentage of young people in education in the developed world were Turkey, Mexico, the UK and Luxembourg (with figures for Japan and Canada unavailable). Twenty-four countries have a higher percentage of young people in education than the UK.

Between 1995 and 2007 Poland, New Zealand, Austria, Switzerland, Korea, Ireland, Greece, Hungary and the Czech Republic went from having a lower percentage of 20-29 year-olds in education than the UK to a higher percentage.

Percentage of full-time and part-time students aged 20-29 in public and private institutions in OECD countries 1995

1

Denmark

30

2

Finland

28

3

Norway

25

4

Belgium

24

5

Iceland

24

6

Australia

23

7

Canada

22

8

Sweden

22

9

Portugal

22

10

Netherlands

21

11

Spain

21

12

Germany

20

13

France

19

14

United States

19

15

United Kingdom

18

16

New Zealand

17

17

Poland

16

18

Austria

16

19

Switzerland

15

20

Korea

15

21

Ireland

14

22

Greece

13

23

Hungary

10

24

Czech Republic

10

25

Mexico

8

26

Turkey

7

27

Luxembourg

Data not available

28

Japan

Data not available

29

Italy

Data not available

30

Slovak Republic

Data not available

OECD average

18

Percentage of full-time and part-time students aged 20-29 in public and private institutions in OECD countries 2007

1

Finland

43

2

Denmark

38

3

Iceland

36

4

Sweden

35

5

Australia

33

6

Poland

31

7

New Zealand

30

8

Norway

30

9

Germany

29

10

Belgium

28

11

Netherlands

28

12

Korea

28

13

Greece

27

14

Hungary

25

15

United States

23

16

Switzerland

23

17

Czech Republic

22

18

Austria

22

19

Spain

22

20

Italy

21

21

Ireland

21

22

Portugal

21

23

France

20

24

Slovak Republic

18

25

United Kingdom

17

26

Turkey

12

27

Mexico

11

28

Luxembourg

6

29

Japan

Data not available

30

Canada

Data not available

OECD average

25

Conclusions and recommendations

UCU's analysis shows a shocking decline in the UK's standing in the world of education. It has gone from a mid-ranking nation to one at the bottom of the pile and risks being overtaken by the few countries still below it and being left behind the countries that have overtaken it in the past 12 years. Unless urgent and decisive action is taken the UK risks being the poor man of the developed world and ill-prepared for life in the new knowledge economy.

Of equal concern is the fact the countries in the 'second tier' (OECD partner countries Israel, Russia, Brazil, Chile, Estonia and Slovenia) also enjoy a higher percentage of young people in education than the UK and, like the rest of the developed world, are seeing those percentages increase.

UCU believes a real cross-party consensus is needed if the UK is to avoid the indignity of becoming a country with first-world aspirations but third-world levels of participation in education. The old order of education for the elite is no longer a model for success and this study shows how urgently education needs to be put at the top of the agenda.

UCU is starting that debate with the formation of the Make Education Count Westminster network that will bring together key players from across the political divide including MPs, peers, local politicians, unions and other key stakeholders.

November 2009