National governments should fund additional university places to pull their countries out of the recession, the Organisation for Economic Co- operation and Development said in a major report on education this week.
Its annual international report Education at a Glance, which compares education systems, argued that economies and individuals continued to benefit from higher qualifications. "The benefits clearly outweigh the costs in every country," said Andreas Schleicher, author of the report.
His comments came amid controversy over the failure of thousands of applicants in the UK to get a university place this summer.
"Countries which want to position themselves for after the economic crisis should create sufficient places in university," said Mr Schleicher. "It makes sense to create more places. It means more tax, better health, better participation in society."
The report showed that only 39 per cent of school leavers in the UK had gained a degree in 2007, placing the UK 14th out of 26 developed nations - a gain of just two per cent since 2000.
Mr Schleicher, senior analyst in the OECD's education division, said the UK was still "doing reasonably well" but had been overtaken by other countries in the number of higher education graduates it produced. "You can always say, `well, shouldn't we wait until the crisis is over and do it then?' No, the moment of the financial crisis is when the opportunity costs are low. People have nowhere else to go."
OECD figures show the UK slightly below the international average. In Iceland, almost two-thirds of people gain a degree. Poland, Finland, New Zealand, Ireland, Norway, Portugal and the Slovak Republic have all overtaken the UK.
A spokesman for Universities Scotland responded to the report, saying: "There really is no better approach to building your way out of recession than up-skilling your workforce and that means expanding university places. We have got too complacent in Britain and if we don't start to take this as a pressing issue, we will be overtaken by other countries.
"The idea that we will be internationally competitive without keeping pace on the proportion of graduates is plain and simply wrong and not a mistake we can afford to make."
l Elsewhere in the report, figures showed that Scottish (lower) secondary teachers are the eighth-highest paid after 15 years' service - after Luxembourg (top), Switzerland, Germany, Korea, Ireland, the Netherlands, and Japan. Last year, Scottish teachers were in seventh position; two years ago, they were fifth-best paid. The top rate for classroom teachers in Luxembourg is $90,000, compared to just under $50,000 in Scotland.
The survey also showed that Scottish teachers had the fifth-highest number of teaching hours per year, behind the United States (highest), Mexico, New Zealand and Chile. However, primary and secondary teachers in Scotland were top of the league for spending more of their working time teaching than anywhere else, at 60 per cent.