The global financial meltdown of 2008 led to public spending on education being cut in more than half the countries in Europe, new figures have revealed.
Sixteen of the 28 European Union member states decreased their overall education expenditure at some point between 2008 and 2011, with six of those making further significant budget reductions in 2012.
While most countries cut spending on at least one level of education - primary, secondary or tertiary - six countries including Italy and Spain made cuts at all levels, the figures show.
The findings were published by the European Commission in its Education and Training Monitor 2013 report, which says that the fall in spending represents a "worrying trend", especially as limited economic growth is forecast for 2014.
The EC has repeatedly called on member states to prioritise what it calls "growth-friendly" spending on education and training, and in July this year it sent specific recommendations to 17 countries.
However, in practice, spending on education and training is decreasing or stagnating, according to the report. Between 2009 and 2012, the EU average for general government expenditure on education as a proportion of gross domestic product dropped from 5.5 per cent to 5.3 per cent.
"As the (economic) crisis persists, many member states consider reducing education expenditure as an option to reduce budget deficits, running the risk of compromising sustained growth in the years to come," the report warns.
A spokesman for Androulla Vassiliou, European commissioner for education, culture, multilingualism and youth, told TES that member states should invest in education to secure the future of the EU.
"The commissioner. feels this is one area that should not be cut, and that these savings can often amount to a false economy," the spokesman said. "She is aware that member states have to tighten their belts but feels education budgets need to be invested more efficiently and effectively."
The biggest cut was in Romania, where the government slashed its overall education expenditure by just over a third (33.5 per cent) in the period 2008-10. The country then increased spending by 30.5 per cent in 2010- 11.
Slovakia had the largest increase in spending. It boosted funding by 31.4 per cent in 2008-10, although this fell by 5.2 per cent in 2010-11.
In the UK, overall government expenditure on all levels of education rose by 2.1 per cent in 2008-10, the lowest amount of all the states that showed an increase in that period. Spending then dropped by 3.6 per cent in 2010-11.
The report also provides evidence that people across the continent are struggling to find employment after they leave education. In 2012, the employment rate of recent graduates with at least an upper secondary education stood at 75.7 per cent, down from 82 per cent in 2008.
Those who leave school prematurely are particularly struggling. The unemployment rate for early school-leavers stands at 40.1 per cent, and only 0.8 per cent of 18- to 24-year-olds who left formal education early are in non-formal learning.
Adult education body Niace, which is responsible for promoting the EC's European Agenda for adult learning in the UK, said that skills and qualifications would be a key part of Europe's future economic success.
"Learning for adults of all ages is vital if we are going to tackle the current crisis and build a stronger, more competitive Europe," said Joyce Black, national coordinator for the agenda at Niace. "The right level of public and private investment will undoubtedly lead to higher productivity, better social mobility and improved health and well- being."
For its part, the EC is increasing investment in education and training by 40 per cent from next January, setting aside almost EUR15 billion (pound;12.7 billion) between 2014 and 2020 for its Erasmus+ programme.