Cuts in student time-to-graduation achieve economic gains – Report

In 2018 Danish students graduated at a significantly younger average age than a decade earlier, according to the DEA, a think tank studying higher education and research. Students are completing their degrees in a shorter time following university reforms.

The study, “Sabbatical Years and Study Progress in Danish Higher Education”, written by Kristian Thur Jakobsen and Kristian Hamburger Holm, is dated September 2020 but was published by the DEA on 26 October 2020.

It estimates that the financial benefit for society resulting from Danish university reforms is between DKK12 billion (US$2 billion) and DKK15 billion.

The study examines how age upon graduation has changed over the past 15 years, after politicians decided on a long list of university reforms.

The analysis includes all people who either completed or started higher education in the period 2003 to 2018, with approximately 17,000 students graduating each year.

It calculates the effects of students taking sabbatical leave – a ‘gap’ period – between finishing secondary education and starting university. The report says that, if 17,000 to 18,000 Danish students would complete a long-term education (to a masters degree), a drop in the average age of graduation would achieve great socio-economic benefit.

An estimate for the total financial benefit for society with an average reduction of one year of the sabbatical would save a great deal – at least 17,000 x DKK300,000 = DKK5 billion to DKK5.5 billion a year.

It was earlier estimated that sabbatical leave between school and university resulted in a socio-economic loss of DKK18 billion to DKK20 billion a year, said the report.

The age of graduates has been reduced by one year on average for shorter qualifications (university colleges and professional degrees). For longer higher education (masters degree), the average is almost two years younger upon graduation in 2018 compared with 2003.

Main conclusions

The following are the report’s main conclusions:

• Age upon graduation has fallen across all higher education degrees over the past 15 years. For masters degrees, the average age is now 27 years at graduation, two years less than 15 years ago. For professional degrees and business bachelor degrees, the average age has fallen one year over the past 15 years.

• From the early years after 2000 until 2012-14 the average length of sabbaticals taken by students fell to 1.2 to 1.4 years across all degrees. For example, young people who started on a bachelor’s degree in 2013 had on average a break of 1.4 sabbatical years compared with 2.6 years for those starting in 2003. After 2014, however, the length increased by about six months on average.

• The average time taken for masters degrees between 2003 and 2008 was 6.3 years while the average in 2014 was 5.2 years – and this reduction happened without the drop-out rate increasing.

• The average number of students who had paid work decreased slightly, with hours worked dropping from above 500 hours a year in 2003 to approximately 460 hours in 2014.

Short sabbatical an ideal?

Educational expert Göran Melin of the Technopolis Group based in Stockholm commented to University World News: “The results are mostly positive for both the individual student and for society at large – shortened study period and shortened ‘sabbatical period’ before starting studies.

“But it could be questioned if a short sabbatical period is always desired. It may be that a young adult needs a break between finishing upper secondary school and starting higher education, to find the study motivation or just to mature.” Alternatively, the study period could be prolonged to prevent drop-out rates from rising.

A critical student view

Johan Hedegaard Jørgensen, president of the National Union of Students in Denmark or DSF, which represents 150,000 students, told University World News: “It is no surprise to me that students are finishing their education faster. After all, we’ve had several years of very intense political focus and a lot of pressure to finish quickly.”

This was the case both in discourse and in policy – for instance, the study progress and student stipend reforms of 2014.

“The now repealed ‘education ceiling’ as it was dubbed, from 2015-20, served the same purpose – to press students to finish faster and not delay by changing subjects. Also, finishing time has been put into very concrete incentive structures, as part of university financing is bound to rates of completion, which punishes universities for giving students extra time,” said Jørgensen.

“However, what we can see [now] is the flip-side of these reforms.” Student stress and general mental and social well-being problems are increasing. “Students are struggling to live up to the rigid systems and expectations the state forces on us.”

Jørgensen added that students do not believe the maths is as simple as expressed in the DEA report. “For example, it is documented that dropout rates soared because of the reforms – which eats up a lot, if not all, of the economic gain from students finishing faster.

“Also, in general, we find it shallow to only look at education and completion rates in terms of expected economic gain.

“We believe the way to go is to give students the time to finish our education in the time that fits the individual. This will lead to happier and better prepared students with fewer dropouts,” argued Jørgensen.

“Also, we, as students, are not always in control of our own study time, as delays inevitably will occur – for instance the COVID lockdown during the spring delayed many students considerably [and] we have not seen the full effect yet.

“As a general note, the reforms – as well as general reductions in education financing – affect students with non-academic backgrounds disproportionally harder. This is easy to overlook if you look only at completion rates in economic terms,” he concluded.