Rising drop-out rate leads to call to scrap reforms

The drop-out rate at Danish universities increased by 20% between 2014 and 2017, partly due to the ‘progress reform’, which aims to cut delays in time taken to achieving a degree, and due to the time limit set on students’ options to take more than one higher education degree, according to a new analysis published by Danish newspaper Information on 28 October.

The delay in time-to-degree has been cut by six and a half months on average since the progress reform was introduced in 2014. According to a note by the Ministry of Higher Education and Science, obtained by University World News, over the same period the drop-out rate increased from 29% in 2014 to 35% in 2017, which is a more than 20% increase.

The note also states that eight out of 10 of these drop-outs occurred due to a change over to a different degree programme.

Call for scrapping reforms

Professor Anders Bjarklev, chairman of Universities Denmark (Danske Universiteter) and rector of the Technical University of Denmark (DTU), said politicians should respond to the increased drop-out rate by scrapping the progress reform, including the time limit on students being able to take more than one degree. At DTU the drop-out rate was 37%, the highest ever recorded.

"The reforms are contributing to the drop-outs. Just mentioning the reforms is having a negative impact on students, who are constantly feeling that they have to speed up," Bjarklev said.

According to the note by the ministry, it is particularly during the second and third year of the bachelor degree that the drop-out rates have increased.

"If only a part of the drop-outs are because of the reforms, these have not been a success," Bjarklev told Information.

Professor Hanne Leth Andersen, who is rector at Roskilde University, told the Ritzau Bureau news agency that there is more than one reason why the drop-out rate is increasing.

"The progress reform has become a catchword for the many changes we have had due to the reforms over the past five to 10 years in higher education. This is creating a situation of stress because the students are nervous and uncertain about their [route through] education and afraid of not getting a job afterwards," she said, arguing that it was time to scrap some of these reforms now.

Sana Mahin Doost, president of the National Union of Students in Denmark, said that it was now time to scrap the progress reform.

Minister of Higher Education and Science Tommy Ahlers said that the progress reform and other political reforms might have had an impact upon students’ behaviour and hence the drop-out rate. But he also said that he was not prepared to scrap the reforms now.

The progress reform was introduced in 2014 and the time limit for embarking on more than one degree was agreed in 2016 by a majority vote in parliament. Both the Danish People’s Party and the Social Democrats have now signalled that if there is a drop-out rate increase, they are willing to look at the reforms again.

Analysis of drop-out

Simultaneously with the newspaper articles on increased drop-out rates, the Danish Evaluation Institute (EVA) has published an extensive analysis: Keeping Students in Higher Education: A knowledge outline to lower drop-out rates.

The EVA said in a press release that all higher education institutions are lacking information on how to reduce the drop-out rate of students, and called for intensified research on these prevention measures.

"Much more research is needed on what can be done to prevent these students from dropping out," the report said.

The report examines 4,581 research articles worldwide on different aspects of dropping out from higher education and found that only 27 of these address the question of which intervention methods can prevent students from dropping out. The vast majority of research is looking at which students are dropping out and why.

Andreas Pihl Kjærsgård, having worked with the investigation, said that a high drop-out rate is a waste of societal resources, erodes the study milieu and is often felt to be a great defeat by the individual student. He called for research cooperation between the EVA and the Danish higher education institutions to investigate why so many students are dropping out.

The EVA report says there are two main approaches institutions can take to lower drop-out rates. These include refining the selection mechanisms to identify students with a lower risk of dropping out and, secondly, introducing mechanisms that can help students retain their study place, such as summer schools, introduction courses, counselling and mentoring programmes. It is important to support social and academic integration of students at an early stage.