How student completion rates vary across Europe

A comparison of some of the national policies aimed at addressing study success

January 1, 2016
Racetrack finish line

How do countries across the European Union compare in ensuring that students complete a degree course? A report released by the European Commission (EC) last month looked in-depth at the issue and here are some of its findings.


Completion rate: 81 per cent

Denmark is among the top performers in Europe with regard to completion rates, although this figure dropped by 4 percentage points between 2005 and 2011, according to the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development. Further data collected for the European Commission report, based on a survey answered by national experts, reveals that there is a 6 percentage point gap between completion rates for bachelor’s students (79 per cent) and master’s students (85 per cent).

In 2013, the Danish government introduced reforms that mean the funding of students and institutions is dependent on students’ achievements. The introduction of a mandatory study plan system means that full-time students are obliged to select course packages of at least 60 European Credit Transfer System (ECTS) credits per year (or 30 per semester), they cannot withdraw from the exams related to these courses, and they must enrol for new courses each year.

This system has been debated in Denmark, but the European Commission says that it is expected to reveal a strong impact on students to complete within the nominal study duration. However, because of the recent implementation of these reforms, there is no evidence of their effectiveness yet.


Completion rate: 59 per cent

Norway introduced quality reforms of higher education in the early 2000s, which included the objective of decreasing dropout rates and shortening the time to degree, both of which were regarded as major problems. The country enhanced financial support for students, turned loans into grants and rewarded institutions with timely completion rates with more funding.

However, although the European Commission notes that the country’s policy mix is “harmonized and consistent”, these changes did not improve completion rates. OECD data show that the completion rate dropped from 65 to 59 per cent between 2005 and 2011, with dropout and long study periods both still a problem.

The Netherlands

Completion rate: 72 per cent

The Netherlands’ central mission around study success is to achieve a good match between the student and the study programme. In 1996, the government introduced a system where all basic student funding became loans, but the loan was converted into a non-repayable grant if the student completed their degree within 10 years.

Until 2011, about 50 per cent of university funding for teaching was related to successfully completed degrees. Since then, this component has been reduced to about 25 per cent. Although no hard proof is available, both funding arrangements are said to have contributed to a gradual decrease in the average time to degree from 6.5 to 5.8 years for four-year bachelor-master university courses.

United Kingdom

Completion rate: 82 per cent

The completion rate in the UK increased from 74 per cent in 2005 to 82 per cent in 2011, according to OECD data. A key driver of this growth was the implementation of annual tuition fees in England of £1,000 per student in 1998 and the subsequent increases, resulting in a cap of £9,000 in 2012. This change of regime was partly aimed at improving institutions’ retention and completion rates as they become dependent on students and study success for their funding.

Institutions receive additional funds with regard to the profile of their student population. Universities charging fees above £6,000 have to indicate in an access agreement how they spend this additional money, which must be used to implement measures to ensure access and success of students from lower socio-economic family backgrounds.

The European Commission says that the high completion rate is due to a “fairly tight admissions system”, in which institutional autonomy has been retained, and a widespread and embedded expectation from institutions and students that completion is possible in three years, except in exceptional circumstances.

Czech Republic

Completion rate: 72 per cent

The Czech Republic has no national policy aimed at addressing study success or dropouts, but it recommends that universities monitor these. The country’s New Strategic Framework for Higher Education says that at least 60 per cent of bachelor's degrees started in 2015 should be completed within an “appropriate time frame”, but no specific measures are mentioned.

The dropout rate from higher education is not perceived as a problem in the country but rather as a quality assurance measure to “keep the bar high”, as it removes low-skilled and unmotivated students who cannot meet the demands of tertiary education.

However, the European Commission notes that retention may become an important topic for institutions, employers and the government in years to come as there has been a significant decline in the number of traditional university applicants since 2011 and some institutions have already reduced the number of first-year students by more than 30 per cent.


Completion rate: 80 per cent

Study success in France is generally defined as the ability of students to find meaningful employment upon graduation, although policies addressing study success measure it using completion rates.

In recent years, France has faced high dropout rates at its universities; almost every second student in the first year of a university undergraduate programme drops out, according to government figures published in 2013. This has been attributed to an increase in the number of students with a professional or technical secondary school leaving certificate rather than one from a general upper secondary school; a lack of student guidance, leading to individuals enrolling in programmes for which they do not meet the requirements; and the fact that universities do not select their students.

The government planned to address this by providing top-up funds to universities subject to their performance in implementing multidisciplinary programmes for first-year students and better preparing students for university entrance.


Completion rate: not disclosed (77 per cent in 2005)

In Germany, higher education policy is under the authority of the federal states and the importance of study success varies across the regions. In Berlin, the main rationale is that the quality of teaching contributes to study success so it provides additional funding to higher education institutions to improve their teaching quality.

However, in 2007 the states and the federal government agreed to cooperate to launch the Higher Education Pact 2020, which aims to support universities in addressing the expected increase in student enrolments. Higher education institutions receive €26,000 (£19,000) per additional student for a four-year period. In the final phase, which begins this month, institutions must invest 10 per cent of the funding from the pact in improving study success.


Completion rate: 62 per cent

Students in Poland have some financial incentives to complete their university degree, but for institutions completion or dropout rates are financially inconsequential.

The government has introduced state-funded “contracted studies” in which 50 per cent of the top-performing students in certain study areas each receive about €250 (£184) per month to complete their degree. Study areas where this applies can vary from year to year but they are those that have too few students, and science, technology, engineering and mathematics areas are always included.

Since October 2013, students who prolong their studies beyond 11 semesters or take up a second degree must pay tuition fees (the first bachelor’s or master’s at public institutions is free of charge).

New regulations also require the strengthening of careers offices at every institution and their involvement in institution-wide graduate surveys.

Note: Care should be taken when comparing completion rates as two calculation methods have been used: a cross-section method where the number of graduates in a particular year is divided by the number of new entrants and a true-cohort method that calculates completion rates longitudinally by tracking the students who begin a programme.

Source: Dropout and Completion in Higher Education in Europe, European Commission. Completion rates supplied by the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development’s Education at a Glance 2013 (based on 2011 data)

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