Drop-out rates mar expansion success

December 12, 1997

Wastage and female enrolment are the main trends in the latest OECD education reports, says Mary Boland

Britain has one of the lowest student drop-out rates among members of the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development, it was revealed this week.

The OECD's Education at a Glance 1997 and Education Policy Analysis 1997 indicate alarming drop-out rates in higher education, with up to 64 per cent in Italy and 30 per cent in Germany. Britain's rate is below 10 per cent.

Albert Tuijnman, an OECD education specialist, said: "When you consider the vastly increased levels of enrolment in third-level institutions and the huge new demands today on tertiary education systems, there is a ridiculous amount of wastage going on."

The Paris-based OECD is to pressure governments to provide more complete data on student drop-outs, first-year failures and students who enrol on courses with no intention of attending. "These figures show there is a serious need for a rethinking of the incentive structures for higher education," said Mr Tuijnman.

The organisation is to release a report next month on such trends. However, OECD officials say many governments and institutions are digging in their heels about handing over figures.

"There's still quite a lot of reluctance . . . but it is also not so easy to introduce a standardised system of calculating wastage across member countries," said Mr Tuijnman.

The statistics on drop-out rates also sound some alarm bells over both the quality of education and student motivation. Estimated rates of non-completion vary widely: 6 to 13 per cent in Britain; 23 per cent in Denmark; 29 to 31 per cent in Germany; and 64 per cent in Italy. Japan is at the low end of the range, and the United States somewhere in the middle.

"These rates are extraordinary. The figure for Italy is totally unacceptable; even 30 per cent (for Germany) is not good," said Mr Tuijnman. "In Germany currently, students are not happy, there are strikes going on, they say the quality is deteriorating - and this is certainly an indicator of that."

Policy-makers and institutions need to gather and publish more information on wastage, he said. "Of course, 90 per cent of universities would be against this.

"But if the market doesn't know about failures, or that 60 per cent of students don't complete the programme, then parents will continue pushing their children into these universities."

The OECD reports give no details on the causes of drop-outs, whether it involves a student suddenly finding work, losing motivation or simply failing to keep up with the academic pace.

Officials say they plan to study the issue more closely for next year's report. They say that open-access systems, where students can freely enrol on any course, and student expansion could be factors.

"Drop-outs appear to be higher in systems that provide free education," said Mr Tuijnman. "If you actually have to spend Pounds 1,000, you are probably going to think twice before walking away."

Education at a Glance 1997 and Education Policy Analysis 1997, OECD Publications, 2 Rue Andre- Pascale, 75775 Paris CEDEX16,1, France.

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