This year's edition of the OECD 'Education at a glance' report shows an average increase of 20% in entry rates to university-level education between 1995 and 2006. In Finland and Poland, the number of students beginning higher education more than doubled in that period.
Although the total amount of public spending on education also rose in all OECD countries, many of them are struggling to respond adequately to rapidly rising student numbers, says the publication.
In fact, according to the report, expenditure per student declined over the last decade in Hungary, the Netherlands and Sweden, while it has been falling since 2000 in Belgium, Germany and Ireland, all of which rely heavily on public funding.
The OECD study shows that countries have chosen very different strategies to meet the challenge. For example, while the Nordic countries have accepted higher levels of public spending and view it as an investment, the UK has shifted some of the financial burden to students.
Many continental European countries, on the other hand, have neither increased more public funding sufficiently nor allowed for the introduction of tuition fees, the study underlines. This creates financial problems for the institutions and threatens the quality of their programmes, it adds.
However, responding to increased demand is not merely a case of increasing financial resources, argues OECD Secretary General Angel Gurría. It is much more a question of "optimising policy choices" and improving the overall management of higher education institutions.
"Investments in education will need to become much more efficient," Gurría said, urging countries with a poor efficiency record to look at other models which provide the best value for money (EurActiv 19/09/07).
In line with these findings, the European Commission has also urged the EU 27 to increase the share of national GDP allocated to education in order to achieve world-class excellence in higher education, a key goal of its Lisbon Strategy for growth and jobs. The Commission also publishes annual benchmark reports against which EU countries can measure the effectiveness of their education policies.