The UK is the third most expensive place in the world to go to university, it emerged today, with fears it could top international league tables when fees soar next year.
“Figures show that undergraduates in just two other countries – the United States and Korea – currently pay more for a degree than in the UK.
Data from the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) showed that students were charged the equivalent of almost £3,100 a year for a university course in 2008/9.
It put the UK above Japan and Australia and significantly higher than European competitors such as France, the Netherlands and Sweden, where tuition is free.
Separate figures show that UK students currently contribute two-thirds of the cost of a degree course – more than double the OECD average and around twice the proportion a decade ago.
The findings come before the cap on tuition fees almost trebles to £9,000 for students starting courses in 2012, which could lead to the UK topping the table in coming years.
According to the OECD, a sharp rise in the cost of higher education in the US has already led to a relative stagnation in the number of people going on to university.
Andreas Schleicher, head of the organisation’s indicators and analysis division, insisted that comparisons to other nations were unfair as UK students had access to generous Government-backed loans, which is “far different from Korea and the US”.
But he acknowledged that the scale of loan repayments represented a “difficult psychological barrier” for poor students to overcome.
He added: “In the US, one of the issues is cost. The cost for higher education has risen dramatically. It is very difficult for people to afford.
“If you look at the UK system, at the moment it is quite strong. With public and private money, it probably is the best system.
“But there is a clear risk in there if fees get to a level that’s unmanageable, if you free things up entirely – and universities may well want to charge fees a lot higher than £9,000 – then you can run into problems.”
Separate data showed that disadvantaged teenagers were alrerady less likely to succeed “against the odds” in the UK than in most other nations. They were 30th out of 39 countries for pupil resilience – achieving decent standards despite coming from the poorest backgrounds.
Critics fear that a rise in university fees may hold them back further.
Sally Hunt, general secretary of the University and College Union (UCU), said: “The Government’s university reforms are an untested experiment that are being rushed through at an alarming rate.
“Overnight it is transferring the burden of funding higher education from the state to the student.”
The report – Education at a Glance – compared figures for 34 OECD member countries plus systems in states such as Brazil, Russia, Argentina, China, India, Indonesia, Saudi Arabia and South Africa.
It found UK tuition fees were the third most expensive in the world in 2008/9, with average students paying the equivalent of almost $5,000 to attend public universities. In Korea and the United States, students had a greater choice between public and private universities, with the latter charging far more. Average fees for Korean students were $5,315 at public universities and $9,586 at private institutions, while the cost of a degree ranged from $6,312 to $22,852 in the US.
At the same time, UK students pay a greater share of the overall cost of a university degree than in most other developed nations, it was revealed.
Some 65.5 per cent of course costs are currently covered by individual students – putting the UK fourth in the world behind Chile, Korea and Japan.
However, the data showed that the wage premium for people with a degree was far higher for UK students than in most other countries.
David Willetts, the Universities Minister, said: “The earnings premium enjoyed by graduates remains substantial and higher than the OECD average. This vindicates our reforms.
“By asking graduates to contribute more to the costs of their education, we have been able to avoid damaging alternatives like cutting student numbers or reducing the amount available for educating each student.””