Just 16 per cent of students at universities, colleges and technical training institutions in the UK leave their courses before finishing, according to the analysis by Sylke Schnepf, lecturer in social statistics at the University of Southampton.
Norway has the second lowest drop-out rate, with 17 per cent leaving tertiary education without graduating, followed by France, where the figure is 19 per cent.
Italy has the highest drop-out rate, with 33 per cent failing to finish their course, followed by the Netherlands (31 per cent).
The study, titled Do tertiary dropout students really not succeed in European labour markets?, published by Germany’s Institute for the Study of Labour, compared 14 European countries using data from the 2011 Programme for the International Assessment of Adult Competency (PIAAC), which is conducted by the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD).
This dataset, which covers adults aged 20 to 65, gave a more accurate measure of drop-out rates, which are sometime overestimated because they use student cohort information, rather than longitudinal studies, said Dr Schnepf.
The data also shows if students return to tertiary education at a later point. For instance, Denmark is 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 has the lowest at 8 per cent and the UK’s re-entry rate stood at 38 per cent, the EU average, showing “dropping out isn’t a permanent decision for a substantial number of people”.
However, despite the UK’s low rates, the paper says drop-outs in the UK are likely to be more disadvantaged in the labour market than those in the rest of Europe.
Unlike the Netherlands, Czech Republic, Denmark and Poland, drop-outs in the UK fare worse in gaining a managerial job than those who did not embark on a higher education courses, the study says.
In France, the Czech Republic, the Netherlands, Poland and Denmark, twice as many drop-outs are working in managerial professions than those without any experience of higher education, the study 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,” said Dr Schenpf.
“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.”