LONDON, Sep 18 (Reuters) Britain's world ranking as one of the highest producers of university graduates has tumbled as other countries invest more heavily in education, an international study reported today.
Despite labelling the British higher education sector ''very strong'', the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) said it was no longer at the world class level it once enjoyed.
It slipped from the third best country for university graduates - at 37 per cent of the population - to 12th, despite increasing its population percentage to 39.
More students in Australia, Denmark, Finland, Iceland, the Netherlands, Norway and Poland were graduating, the Paris-based organisation said.
The organisation's annual Education at a Glance survey said about half of all British school leavers were entering university, a figure that was less than the OECD average.
When Labour came to office in 1997 the policy of greatly increasing access to higher education was made a top priority.
OECD analyst Andreas Schleicher said that countries that had invested in higher education and the ''knowledge economy'' were considerably better off than those economies that relied more on trades.
''In the year 2000, Britain had one of the highest graduation rates, whereas very little has happened (since) compared to other countries that have expanded their higher education system in terms of their output,'' he said at the report's launch.
''While it is still very strong it (the British higher education sector) is no longer at the world class level in terms of quantity.'' But in good news for the government, record numbers of students - almost 20 per cent- were entering science and maths-based courses compared to the OECD averages of just over 10 per cent.
Salary levels were also influenced by graduates, with the report revealing that people leaving university with a degree earned almost 80 per cent more than people who started work straight after school.
Male graduates will earn almost 60 per cent more than female students, it said.
Schleicher also praised the government for investing more in ''quality teachers'' as opposed to reducing class sizes.
He was also supportive of the British government investing in pre-school education, which was one of the highest in the world.
Despite Higher Education secretary Bill Rammell called the fugures encouraging.
''The UK has one of the highest entry rates for vocational higher education and since the higher education figures in the OECD report are from 2005 we expect to see continued increases over the coming years,'' he said.
''But we still have a way to go.'' REUTERS ARB KP1557