Universities have cut degree completion delay by half

The 2014 progress reform introduced to bring down the time spent to graduation has brought unexpectedly rapid results. After only three years it brought the delay in time-to-degree down from an average 13.2 months in 2011 to 6.7 months in 2017, according to ministry of higher education and science data.

But universities are still facing pressure from the National Audit Office of Denmark (NAO) to ensure that students are studying full time and that investment in higher education gives value for money.

The reduction in delay is strongest for masters degrees, where the average delay in 2017 was 6.7 months compared to 11.6 months in 2014.

The proportion of masters degree candidates graduating on schedule rose from around 14% in 2007 to around 40% in 2017 with great differences between academic disciplines.

In the same period the figures rose in the humanities from 11% in 2007 to 26% in 2017, in social sciences from 13% to 29%, in health sciences from 14% to 47%, and in technology or natural sciences from 16% to 38%.

Danish Minister of Higher Education and Science Tommy Ahlers said: "Earlier, students on average took one year extra to complete their degree. When you start working, it is expected that you can set an end-point in time and deliver within a set time-frame."

However, although the completion time has been reduced, the drop-out rate has increased significantly over the same period.

At bachelor degree level the percentage dropping out in 2014 for the humanities was 34% but rose to 45% in 2017, in social sciences the percentage rose from 21% to 26%, in health sciences from 14% to 17%, and in technology or natural sciences from 29% to 36%.

At masters level the drop-out rate also increased but at much lower rates. In the humanities the rate rose from 18% in 2014 to 23% in 2017, in social sciences from 5% to 7%, in health sciences from 2% to 3%, and in technology or natural sciences from 12% to 13%.

Structural changes

The major change in intake of undergraduates is that almost half of those admitted in 2017 were studying technology or natural sciences and health, compared to one-third in 2007.

At the same time the number of new bachelor degree students increased by 40% to 30,193 in 2017. For masters degree students the increase was 91% between 2007 and 2017, with 26,586 being accepted in 2017.

National audit intervention

Despite Danish universities having a much higher intake over the decade, the ministry in the governmental budget for 2018 did not reduce the 2% annual budget cut which it previously announced would remain in place until 2022.

In August the Danish NAO published a report providing evidence that Denmark is not getting value for money for the DKK13.5 billion (US$2.1 billion) invested in higher education, as measured in fulfilled ECTS – European Credit Transfer and Accumulation System – points by full-time students.

The NAO posed three questions:
  • • Has the ministry of higher education and science decided on how the universities are going to manage ECTS points?

  • • Do the higher education institutions monitor the use of time to complete studies by their students systematically and can the institutions account for and hence document that they really are full-time students?

  • • Do the universities use knowledge about the students’ use of time when planning for new courses?
The NAO’s data analysis demonstrated that the universities cannot account for students using the time that is equal to full-time studies.

The NAO found that the ministry, during the 17 years since ECTS was made mandatory for use, when planning further education has not made any framework for the universities on how to manage the ECTS points, for example by setting the target for student use of time and how to monitor the development over time.

The NAO found that 25 higher education institutions were measuring student time use, based on student reporting on how much time they use. But while full-time study should constitute 43 hours a week, according to the NAO, none of the higher education institutions examined had such a time-use documented.

Klaus Frandsen, the national auditor, said: “It is just the time-use [measured in completed ECTS points] that by law regulates governmental support to the institutions. It is hence justified that the ministry should specify some expectations for the institutions about which studies they are offering the students and that these are full-time studies."

But Professor Anders Bjarklev, chair of the Danish Rectors’ Conference, said that it is the responsibility of the students to decide how much time they spend on their studies.

“It is not the task of the universities to run around with a stop-watch to control every student,” Bjarklev said to DR, the Danish Broadcasting Corporation.

*The data show there has been a strong increase in the number of Danish students studying abroad. The number of Danish students studying in other countries as exchange students was 8,376 in 2017, an increase of 129% since 2007. However, the number of incoming exchange students rose by only 23% over the decade.