An analysis of survey data by the University of Southampton has shown that of 14 European countries, the UK has the least number of students dropping out of tertiary education – for example, from universities, colleges and technical training institutions.
Social statistician Dr Sylke Schnepf examined a very large survey data set called the Programme for the International Assessment of Adult Competency (PIAAC) which is conducted by the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD).
She found that of the 14 EU countries for which data are available in the survey, tertiary education dropout rates are lowest in the UK at just 16 per cent, followed by Norway at 17 per cent and France at 19 per cent. The highest dropout figures are found in Italy at 33 per cent and the Netherlands at 31 per cent. In addition, in most of the countries men are much more likely to dropout than women, with the UK being a notable exception, with no significant difference between sexes.
Dr Schnepf comments: “I was interested in using a different measure of who was leaving college and university early. Normally student cohort figures are used to give us a good idea of this, but they can lead to an over-estimation of the numbers leaving. They count as dropouts, part-time students, students who didn’t aim to complete their studies and those who need extra time to complete. The PIAAC data we have used for our analysis addresses this, because here adults report for themselves whether they have dropped out altogether.”
Another advantage of the data, which covers adults aged 20 to 65, is that it shows if students return to tertiary education at a later point. Denmark was highest in this category, with as many as 59 per cent of those who dropped out returning to finish their studies later in life. Italy had the lowest at 8 per cent and the UK showed an average EU figure at 38 per cent. These results show dropping out isn’t a permanent decision for a substantial number of people.
In relation to career pathways, the results show that people with upper secondary education, who are also tertiary dropouts, outperform other adults with equal education qualifications. For example, in France, the Czech Republic, the Netherlands, Poland and Denmark, twice as many dropouts than non-dropouts are working in managerial professions – even though on paper the highest formal education both groups have is upper secondary.
The UK is again the exception where careers are concerned. People who embark on tertiary education here, but don’t finish, don’t seem to have any advantage over similarly qualified peers when pursuing a job. This is different to many other EU countries. In the Netherlands, Czech Republic, Denmark and Poland adults reporting tertiary dropout are still more likely to hold better positions in the labour market than equally educated counterparts even if their socio-economic and demographic background and skills are the same between both groups.
The study therefore questions whether ‘tertiary dropout’ has negative connotations in the labour market. Dr Schnepf says: “People tend to think that it is negative for both individuals and society when students do not finish their education, but it could be argued that a decision to curtail studying can be rational, positive and individual– perhaps someone wants to pursue a secure job because this may be valued more in certain societies. In fact, my findings show that it can be more of an advantage to have taken part in tertiary education and dropped out, than not to have taken it up at all.”