The increase is astonishing, considering there has been no official increase in the school-leaving age. But the phenomenon is not unique to Britain. The trend is evident in other developed countries, and has been confirmed by new statistics issued by the 29-country Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development.
The development has been welcomed by educationists but is causing serious financial headaches for many countries with rising youth populations.
Between 1990 and 1996, the average time a five-year-old in the UK could expect to spend in full-time and part-time education rose from l5.4 years to 17. 3. The average for OECD countries has leapt from l5 to 16.5 during the same period.
Andreas Schleicher, an OECD official, said: "The dramatic increase in the UK was in higher education, as in other countries. But 0.7 of the rise was because young people are staying on beyond the school-leaving age."
The increase reflects the growing realisation that individual earning power and national economic success are largely determined by level of education. The shortage of jobs for school-leavers is another contributing factor.
Many governments are now concerned because their education spending is rising substantially.
Although education remains mainly publicly funded in OECD nations, the increasing financial pressures mean that Britain - said to be investing 4.6 per cent of its GDP on education - is not the only country where the state is trying to attract more private investment and asking university students to contribute to the costs of their education.
The OECD's statistics, however, suggest that the UK Government is getting better value from higher education than many other countries. It has spent less per tertiary student in recent years and yet 80 per cent of undergraduates complete their course.
Britain also spends less than the OECD average on both primary and secondary pupils. In 1995 it was said to be investing US$ 3,328 (Pounds 2,080) a year in each primary child, compared with an OECD total of $3,595. The per-pupil spending on secondary pupils was $4,246 - about $700 less than the OECD average.
US slump, page 18