Education spending cuts risk turning the UK into "yesterday's country", a union leader has warned.
In a scathing attack on the Government, Sally Hunt, general secretary of the University and College Union (UCU), said the coalition is a "fundamental threat", undermining the work done in further and higher education.
In her speech to delegates at the UCU's annual conference in Harrogate, she says that while all public services are facing cuts, universities and colleges have been "singled out for special treatment" with spending slashed by 17% over the next two years.
She will say: "The cost to our country of this attack on education will be substantial", adding "when you weigh the cost of keeping kids on benefit versus giving them a chance in life, it is ignorance that is the expensive option, not education.
"Since the turn of the century the UK's qualification rates have been overtaken by Iceland, Poland, Slovakia, the Czech Republic, the Netherlands, Japan, Ireland, Portugal, the US, Sweden, Denmark and Norway. It is possible that all those countries are wrong to be investing more in education and we are right but I doubt it. A country equipped with yesterday's skills will soon become yesterday's country."
She adds: "If the legacy the coalition inherited was far from golden, what they have done in this area since May beggars belief.
"Last year, UCU showed that the only league table the UK tops is that of the most expensive place to get a public education in the world and that was before the tripling of university fees and the axing of the education maintenance allowance. What an indictment of this Government that within six months they had made it harder to go to college and more expensive to go to university.
"They claim their goal is to promote social mobility, but we must judge them by what they do, not what they say. In reality, coalition policy is about putting barriers up, not pulling them down."
Universities and Science Minister David Willetts said: "We agree that education is critical for social mobility and economic growth. That is why we are funding 250,000 more apprenticeships over this Parliament, improving careers advice and transforming university finance.
"We estimate universities will receive 10% more teaching income by 2014/15. But, crucially, funding will follow the decisions of students so successful universities will thrive."