Documents to download

This research briefing examines higher education systems around the world in order to compare policy approaches and performance in other countries with the UK. It builds on the Commons Library briefing Higher education in the UK: Systems, policy approaches, and challenges.

More detail on all the headings below is available in the full briefing.

System management and coordination

While the higher education systems in England, Scotland, and Wales are characterised by the existence of an intermediary public body between government and providers, such as the Office for Students in England, these bodies are rare in other OECD countries, where higher education is more likely to be co-ordinated through a government department. In some federal countries, such as Germany, Canada, and the US, these departments are found at the regional level.

Another structural difference between the UK and most other OECD countries lies in the types of higher education providers that exist. While the UK can be described as a ‘university-led system’, in which the majority of higher education providers are universities offering courses with both research and vocational elements, most OECD countries have a ‘binary system’. In binary systems, higher education providers are generally categorised as either ‘academic’, meaning they have a research focus and teach subjects with more theoretical elements, or ‘vocational’, meaning they offer courses more focused on labour market needs and designated professional areas.

Student and graduate numbers

Over 235 million higher education students were enrolled globally in 2020, more than double the 100 million students enrolled in 2000. This increase has been driven by Asia in particular.

The UK has the highest entry rate (percentage of the population who start higher education by age 24) in the G7 at 58%. Between 2000 and 2022, the UK saw the biggest increase among G7 nations in the proportion of 25- to 34-year-olds who have completed tertiary education (equivalent to higher education qualifications at level 4 and above in England, Wales, and Northern Ireland). The UK is currently above the OECD and G20 average on this measure.


While higher education is a policy priority across the world, levels of public investment differ significantly. As a percentage of overall spending on higher education, the UK has the lowest public spending and the highest private spending of OECD countries. This difference reflects the comparatively large contribution that is made through tuition fees paid by students in England (albeit often through government loans) to the overall amount spent on higher education.

The complexity of tuition fee liability in many countries, with variations by subject, type of course, type of institution, students’ circumstances, and whether there is any state support to meet fees, means direct comparisons between fees are not straightforward. However, global tuition fee policies can be generally categorised into four broad types, which include:

  • free tuition
  • low tuition fees
  • high tuition fees supported by a student loan system
  • ‘dual track’ policies, where some students receive free/low cost entry based on academic performance, while others must pay more.

The nature and amount of living cost support similarly varies around the world, but is generally means-tested to some degree. Most OECD countries provide a combination of maintenance grants and student loans on favourable terms.

Student access, participation, and outcomes

In the UK, most students apply to higher education providers and receive offers of places before they sit their exams (Scotland is generally an exception to this). This is a pre-qualification admissions system and is quite unique across the OECD. Other wealthy countries are more likely to have post-qualification admissions systems, when offers from higher education providers are made after students have sat exams.

As well as producing significant amounts of access and participation data, the UK also has a comparatively high level of policy commitment to widening higher education participation. The World Access to Higher Education Day initiative has brought together information on the policies of national governments in this area to produce ‘The Global Equity Policy Map’. It shows that, unlike in England and Scotland, very few countries have specific policies focused on access and success and/or targets related to participation by those from low income or other disadvantaged groups.

The UK is well above the OECD and EU22 averages for employment levels where holders of short cycle qualifications, bachelor’s degrees, and master’s degrees are concerned. However, it is much closer to these averages when it comes to earnings by qualification.

Higher education, research, and development

In terms of funding, the UK’s gross spending on research and development, which is defined as the total expenditure (current and capital) on R&D carried out by all resident companies, research institutes, university and government laboratories in a country, has increased in recent years, surpassing the average for OECD countries in 2017.

The UK performs strongly when it comes to research output compared to its peers, but while its annual count of research publications is increasing, this growth is not as fast as some other countries, leading to the UK’s share of world publications decreasing slightly in 2022.

Global ranking systems

International university ranking systems have become more numerous, sophisticated, and influential in recent years. The five major rankings systems are:

The first four of these systems compile overall university league tables in which the UK performs well.

The focus on research and reputation in global university rankings has led some to criticise their worth, especially when they influence the policies of governments and universities. Such criticisms have led to a wider range of systems and the use of more diverse criteria, including measuring performance against the United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goals.

Further reading

For a comparison of the UK’s four higher education systems, see the Commons Library briefing paper Higher education in the UK: Systems, policy approaches, and challenges.

Documents to download

Related posts