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Wha’s Like Us (in Europe)?

April 11, 2014

A post bringing together a range of information about Europe from the OECD’s Education at a Glance 2013 and  Eurostudent IV Social and Economic Conditions of Student Life in Europe 2008-2011,  both rich sources of comparative data on higher education systems.

On this data, only Denmark, with free tuition and the second highest public spending in the OECD on higher education,  (more than) matches the UK  in the extent of student support, while also managing similarly high graduation rates.  Even then, it scores less well on inclusivity than some others.

Europe at a glance

The dominant pattern in Europe is for lower fees than in the UK, but also more limited participation, particularly when measured as achieving a higher education qualification, rather than simply initial access.  On the most recent OECD data, graduation rates in the UK are 25% to 50% higher than in most other European countries.  The exceptions are Ireland, Iceland, Denmark, Slovenia and Poland.

Student support is generally much more  limited across Europe (with the exception of the countries discussed below), so that  students’ access to private resources – their “ability to pay” – is a more significant issue.   As long as successful widespread participation, and avoiding reliance on “ability to pay”,  are policy goals in Scotland, a certain wariness might be advisable in seeking justification in practice in most of Europe for  the status quo here.

The high support group

Eurostudent IV notes:

It appears that public support in all Scandinavian countries, England/Wales [note: Scotland should be similar] and The Netherlands reaches a high share of the student population (over 70%) and the state is a significant contributor to the recipients’ income (state assistance makes up between over 40% and 70% of recipients’ total income).

But the UK, not least Scotland,  is unusual in the majority of students being limited to loans (only apparently otherwise the case in Iceland, Turkey and Latvia). Other countries, including Norway and Sweden, do however use loans as a significant element of what they provide, and always at higher interest rates than in Scotland.

The Netherlands charges fees (around £1,500), as does England and Wales (around £3,500 at this date). 10% of Norwegians are liable for fees of up to around £7000.  The Scandinavian countries otherwise charge no fees to their own students.

(a) Value of support and student satisfaction

The total value of state support is more restricted in Finland than the other countries: there, and also in the Netherlands, on average students’ own earnings are their single largest source of income.   Only in England and Wales, Norway, Sweden and Denmark is the single largest block of student income from the state. (No data on this for Iceland.)

Student satisfaction with their total income from all sources is generally in top half of the table for this group of countries, but Italy and a few others occupy the top spots.  Attitudes are unusually sharply divided in Finland and Norway, depending on how much students have.

(b) Debt

Neither of these sources compare levels of  student debt.   However, as:

it seems likely that the debt levels of non-Scottish UK students under the pre-2012  fee regime were paralleled at least in these cases.  Limited reliance on family contributions make it unlikely that Scotland’s  pattern of skewing debt towards the poorest is found elsewhere.

(c) The chance of getting a higher education qualification

Importantly, in  this group only Denmark and Iceland achieve similarly high graduation rates to the UK: Norway, Sweden, Finland and the Netherlands are all well behind, despite  high initial entry rates. Sweden, in particular, has a non-completion rate of around 50%.  Credits towards a degree are reported to have reasonable currency in the Swedish labour market, which may help explain this. Non-completion is also particularly high in Norway.  The Swedish system has also seen the least growth in the numbers in the general population with a higher education qualification over the past decade, with the lowest figure in OECD for this.

(d) Inclusion

Eurostudent undertakes complex analyses to compare how “inclusive” systems are.  It notes: “Only few countries’ higher education systems can be classified as socially inclusive….  Ireland, Finland, The Netherlands and Switzerland“.  Interestingly, these four countries all have relatively generous, but not the most generous, schemes of student support by European standards: the Irish and Swiss schemes are targeted on a smaller proportion of students than in the UK, Netherlands or Scandinavia.

Norway and Denmark do well on some but not all measures, so could also be considered among the more inclusive systems in Europe.  Sweden is similar, but a bit more weakly so.  Scotland is not part of this survey, but was included in the previous report, covering 2005-08.  At that point, it was listed among the countries with an inclusive system. The rest of the UK is not assessed in either report, but from what information is shown, and the similarity of performance in widening access across the UK,  might be expected to do at least as well as Sweden. Iceland is not covered.

(e) Public spending

In the period surveyed, across the OECD, only the four mainland Scandinavian countries had public expenditure on higher education (including research) which exceeded 2% of GDP.  Iceland, the Netherlands and Ireland cluster between 1.4% and 1.7% (OECD average 1.4%).  The UK is low, at 1%, reflecting the shift to loans for fees (the figure ought to be higher for Scotland). However, spending in higher education institutions per student from all sources  is pretty similar across the group.  Using the OECD’s “purchasing power parity” measure,  it clusters round £6,000.  Ireland is highest (though this may since have changed) and Sweden the lowest, with the UK just above the average.  So students in all these countries benefited from similar levels of total spending.


This table contains some of the OECD data quoted above,  mainly from 2010 or 2011.  The Eurostudent material is less easy to extract as single figures.

Graduation rate for first-time degree or sub-degree Entry/non-completion rate Growth in HE qualification rates in generalpopulation 2000-10 Students (f/t and p/t)receiving some form of state support Total public spending on higher education as share of GDP
% % % % %
United Kingdom 62* 64++/28 4.7 71 1
Iceland 59 68+/u 6 63 1.6
Denmark 55 62++/19 3.9 78 2.4
Finland 45* 69-/24 2.7 54 2.2
Sweden 43 60+/47 1.9 95 2
Norway 42* 76-/41 3.4 83 2.6
Netherlands 40 60/28 3 85 1.7
OECD average 51 60+-/32 4.2 u 1.4

u = unavailable

Graduation rate for all forms HE, excluding international students * indicates deduction by author of estimate for international students using related data and/or includes added estimate for non-degree HE using related data, where OECD figures not directly provided

Entry rate for degree-level HE, excluding international students: + indicates excluded non-degree likely to be more than 10%; ++ excluded non-degree likely to be more than 20%;  –  indicates figure includes international students, no alternative OECD figure available

The graduation, entry and non-completion rates are each calculated using separate methodologies and cannot be simply related to one another, as contrasting the Danish and UK figures shows.












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