Too many EU students from under-represented groups leave higher education before completing their degrees, according to a Commission report published 17 October 2013. Students coming from poor socio-economic backgrounds are by far the most likely to drop out of higher education.
Male students are more at risk of drop-out than female. Students with dependents, women in particular, struggle to balance caring responsibilities with their studies. The same goes for part-time students, who are at greater risk as a result of caring responsibilities or working long hours in a job unrelated to their studies. Also at risk are minority ethnic students, who may face obstacles of racism or poverty, and students with disabilities who often drop out due to physical problems of access and discrimination.
Where do students drop out?
Denmark, the UK and Germany are the most successful EU countries in terms of higher education completion, while the countries with the lowest proportion of students completing their degrees are Italy, Hungary and Poland. In Italy, completion is as low as 46%.
The report also shows that widening participation in higher education does not itself lead to drop-outs. Denmark, which is recognised as being highly successful in this area, has the lowest rate of drop-out in the EU (80% completion).
What can be done to reduce dropping out?
A combination of factors leads to drop-out, with poor socio-economic background being the single most important factor. Therefore, a holistic approach to retention is necessary and higher education policy that is supported by policies to tackle wider socio-economic and cultural inequalities. Policies that are shown to be successful include:
- Recognition that factors leading to drop-out from higher education need to be tackled early in life;
- offering financial support to students;
- targeted outreach programmes;
- improved monitoring tools to effectively track drop-out and completion rates not only at national level but also at the level of individual institutions and disciplines;
- including measures to prevent drop-out in widening participation plans;
- accrediting the life skills students have already acquired;
- providing academic support for students from disadvantaged backgrounds.
Other key findings from the report show that:
- Building measures to monitor and reward completion into national systems of higher education funding can have a positive impact on reducing drop-out, in particular when linked to success in widening participation.
- Dropping out can be a positive decision when students realise that the time, place or degree is not right for them. Indeed, most of those who withdraw from an initial course of study plan to transfer to another course or to return to study at a later date, and there should be sufficiently flexible arrangements that facilitate this.
- Many students do triumph against the odds. More research on resilience and success is needed.
- There is no coherent set of data on access, completion and drop-out in the EU and the extent to which individual countries collect data on this issue is variable. More reliable and comparable data including shared definitions on drop-out and completion would help to make analysis across countries more effective.
The Commission will deepen its analysis of the issue through two further studies – a feasibility study from Eurostat on improving the methodology for collecting administrative data on the duration of studies and completion rates in higher education, with results in early 2015; and a mapping study analysing the effectiveness of different national and institutional approaches and how structural, institutional, personal, socio-cultural and socio-economic factors influence drop-out and completion, due mid-2015.
The Drop out and Completion in Higher Education in Europe among students from under-represented groups report was compiled for the European Commission by the Network of Experts in Social aspects of Education and Training (NESET). The main author is Professor Jocey Quinn of Plymouth University, UK.
- Full report
- Executive summaries