The UK is struggling to keep up as other developed nations send rising numbers of students through university, a major report found today.
Despite still producing good numbers of graduates, the UK is failing to make the same rate of progress, and falling down international rankings as some countries continue the massive expansion of their education systems, a study by the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) said.
Sweden, Iceland and Portugal are among those that now have higher graduation rates than the UK, it found.
The report warns that in a time of recession, countries need to plan for more people wanting to stay on in education.
Earlier this year, the Government capped the number of additional student places available this year, so that in total only 13,000 extra spaces were available.
But record numbers - more than 613,000 applied to start degree courses this autumn, and 135,800 still qualify for clearing - the system which matches applicants with vacant places.
The OECD's annual "Education at a Glance" report analyses 30 countries around the world for their educational progress.
It found that the UK fell from third place in the university graduation rate table in 2000 to 11th position in 2007.
Britain's graduation rate has risen two percentage points, from 37% to 39% between these years.
In comparison, on average across all OECD countries the graduation rate has almost doubled, from 18% in 1995 to 39% in 2007. UK figures for 1995 are not available.
Britain has been overtaken by countries including Portugal, which had a graduation rate that rose from 23% in 2000 to 43% in 2007.
Iceland saw its rate go from 33% to 63%, and Sweden's rate went from 28% to 40%.
The table gives the percentage of all graduates out of a population at the typical age of graduation, which is usually 21 in the UK, that has a higher education qualification.
OECD head of analysis Andreas Schleicher said: "The UK was at the front in 2000, now it is doing reasonably well, but many countries have past that point."
In many areas of education, the UK has "levelled off", he said.
The OECD report gives figures for up to 2007, before the current global financial crisis took hold.
But the authors said the study indicates that investment now can help a country's economic recovery in the future.
Mr Schleicher said: "At a moment of financial crisis, when opportunity costs are low, that's when the relative costs are low, and there is relative competition for labour market entry, countries who want to position themselves ideally for after a crisis, now is a moment to do so."
The authors do note that in the UK, demand for graduates is slowing, with employers now preferring to hire young people with below-university level qualifications for skilled jobs.
The report also shows that the UK is spending below average on public funding for all higher education.
In total, 0.9% of the UK's GDP went on public funding of higher education in 2007, compared to the OECD average of 1%, behind countries including France, the United States and Canada.
In terms of both public and private spending, 1.3% of GDP goes on higher education, compared to the OECD average of 1.5%.
The report does find that an above average proportion of adults overall hold some form of higher education qualification, though in 2005, more than a third of UK students who started a university-level qualification failed to finish it.
And the UK has almost double the proportion of "Neets" - teenagers "not in employment, education or training." - 8% of 15-19-year-olds in 2007, compared to an OECD average of 4.8%.
Universities minister David Lammy said: "As this latest OECD report shows, the proportion of adults in the UK holding a degree is above average with them enjoying a better return on their qualifications than most comparable countries. Our universities attract the highest number of foreign students after the United States while the amount we spend per student has risen strongly.
"We have made good progress on adult education and skills, with the number of people starting an apprenticeship trebling, and our Train to Gain service enabling more than 1.2 million learner starts. This is a good record, but there is more to do. We will continue to empower people to learn, re-skill and up-skill - preparing Britain for the upturn and beyond."
:: In schools, the OECD report found that the UK invest more money per child in pre-school education than every other country except Iceland and the United States, and a a high proportion of youngsters are in nursery.
The UK spends 5.9% of GDP on all levels of education, the OECD average is 5.7%.
But primary class sizes are still among the biggest, with 25.8 students in every classroom, compared with an average of 21.4. This is more than countries including Mexico, Iceland and Luxembourg.
Schools minister Diana Johnson said the report paints a "positive picture" of the UK's progress, adding "We are well above the international average in many areas."