… and the rising issue of dropout rates in higher education
The Norwegian Issue
Norway is one of the countries in Europe that has the highest dropout rate. Of the students starting higher education, Statistics Norway concludes that only 65,7 % finish a degree within 8 years. This accounts for all students starting degrees and changing courses or degrees within these 8 years, as well as the ones completing long-term studies and higher-level degrees. This means 34,3% never finish any degree within 8 years of when they started their studies. The ever-present debate with these results always boils down to “who do we blame?” Because numbers like these demand some change and they cause havoc in the public debate. They force people to question the quality of degrees offered, of the teaching and of the higher education institutions.
Upon asking students why they choose to leave their studies, the answers are varied. A large number of students point to external factors not related to the teachings of the university. One of the key factors is mental health, because as much good that has been done, when the student health questionnaire shows that 1/3 of Norwegian students report to be struggling with mental health issues, the numbers of dropout students no longer seem as surprising. These results are seen all over Europe, and they are equally as alarming no matter where in the world one is based, but one can argue that it is not the job of the University or higher education institution alone to deal with this. When taking away time better used for teaching, all the students are losing out. There needs to be external help set into place apart from the professors and teachers alone.
Apart from this there is also another group that has high dropout rates, and these are the students that leave university and higher education to work. The ones that either cannot let a work opportunity slip by, or that tell themselves, like many before, that they are just like Bill Gates. He dropped out of Harvard to not miss out on the technological growth and beaming market, and regardless of the personal reasons and fields of work, it all boils down to a belief that the job market no longer requires higher education for one to succeed. And time and time again, it is proven to be right.
When success stories are flaunted around of higher education dropouts making a living for themselves and climbing the societal work ladders without it, it is easy to understand that students lose their motivation and have a higher chance of dropping out. This is one of the situations where one can give the teaching and lectures some fault. Attending higher education should always be about learning, acquiring knowledge and growing as a person, not simply a mandatory stepping stone to reach the career you want.
Looking to Europe
This debate is in no way limited only to Norway, and this can clearly be seen in the latest report from the European Commission on dropout rates and completion in higher education across Europe. And as the report concludes, study success and completion of degrees is one of the main aims, both personally for the students and from a system and societal perspective. Overall it is easy to argue that everyone benefits from a high number of students succeeding in their education. Yet, what study success looks like and how it is measured varies a lot across borders. The importance of study success from an EU policy level can be seen in the goal set in the Europe 2020 strategy for minimum 40% of 30-40 year olds to hold a tertiary education qualification. Defined as a prime strategy both by the European Commission report, higher education dropout rates are higher up in the agenda than ever before.
Part of the question that is asked by the report is whether the fact that national governments have put dropout rates and study success high on their agenda produces results in higher completion rates. It is a valid question, as it is fair to believe that completion rates being on the agenda and reaching high importance would lead to more positive trends in the rates. Yet the results show that the reality is otherwise. With in-depth studies from eight European countries there was a large span in the importance of higher education completion on their national agenda, and the studies showed that it was not the importance on the national agenda alone that supported success. However, it was the given policies that had the most impact on the results. Examples of this can be seen from countries with higher completion rates than average. Here the Dutch approach has proven a success; combining several financial aspects of support with the organisational support policies has helped reduce the time-to-degree and thus also the overall completion rates.
Denmark is also being marked as a great success, where they have approached the situation with a complete reform to boost the quality of education. Included in this was a reform of their funding system for students, giving each student a maximum time by which they can receive financial support, and thereby urging students to complete their degree in the given timeframe. This also gives control power to the institutions by enforcing a demand for progress a student has in their studies. Finland also reaches the top in their policy creation for study success by looking toward the individual and not the group, as some students have a higher chance of dropping out than others. They combat this by implementing personal study plans, monitoring attendance and progress, and monitoring students on a more individual level.
These countries and their political agenda prove that it is not how often a topic is debated or the importance we place on the topic that gives results, it is the study-based policies which create change over time. Issues that arise by growing societal changes can never be changed by top-down approaches with empty wishes of success, however it needs to be done by long-term solutions and growing incentives to complete faster. Going back to the first example of Norway, higher education completion is debated often, and incredibly high importance is placed on the matter, yet the worries are ever-growing, and the new policy changes seem futile. It begs the question of national differences in society, or if it is a lack of successful policies. Sweden sees similar numbers to Norway, and similar importance placed on the question in public debate, maybe regional differences are a growing issue not taken into account.
How Much Does the Dropout Rate Harm Us?
The numbers are at times a growing worry, the debate looms both nationally everywhere in Europe and on the EU level. Yet, as much as the national dropout rates set European countries aside, it is hard to find studies linking general national success and prosperity to the higher education completion. Maybe this then supports the belief of national differences and societal changes. As with all changes in society, we most likely won’t see the possible changes for decades to come. And in the meantime, we will keep debating whether this is an issue we need to solve, or a welcomed change. And as with most large and daunting questions like this, most often the answer is “a little bit of both” while we all patiently wait and see.