The UK maintains the highest university graduation rates with 37.5 per cent of 21 year-olds gaining degrees compared to just 10.4 per cent in Switzerland and 9.2 per cent in Denmark.
But the UK, which is the fourth biggest economy, is 1 per cent below the OECDs average of 64 per cent of a country's 25 to 64-year-olds, with the equivalent of five top grade GCSEs. And its position is falling. It is 13th out of 30 on upper secondary attainment among 55 to 64-year-olds, but only 24th among 25 to 34-year-olds. Korea is 24th among 55-64 year olds but first among 25 to 34-year-olds.
Andreas Schleicher, OECD spokesman, said in a generation the UK had failed to break the "magic barrier" of 70 per cent and this mattered to the students who are left behind. Figures for 30 to 44-year-olds show pupils who fail to achieve these qualifications earn 68 per cent of the income of those who do and are twice as likely to be unemployed. The UK's 15-year-olds performed better than most countries in the OECD's programme for international student assessment tests in reading, maths and science.
But Mr Schleicher said unlike countries such as Korea, Japan and Finland, it had failed to iron out the impact of social inequality on educational achievement.
"The most successful systems are comprehensive and are providing open pathways and highly personalised learning," he said. "The least successful systems are highly institutionally differentiated."
The study showed that UK spending per primary pupil in 1999 was 10 per cent below the OECD average but cautioned against equating low spending or high class sizes with poor uality. "It is not true that if you spend more you get better outcomes," said Mr Schleicher. " The study also showed that starting salaries for UK teachers are near average, but those with 15 years' experience earn significantly above the OECD average at primary and secondary levels - 20 per cent above at primary level.