Are university students taking less time to graduate?

by Dirk Van Damme
Head of the Innovation and Measuring Progress division, Directorate for Education and Skills

University is both a formative and enjoyable period in a young person’s life. Some who can afford to postpone their entry into the job market like it so much that they spend many years studying for a degree. Others have to repeat courses and semesters to succeed. Traditionally university programmes are designed as long and demanding trajectories, especially within Europe. In a paradigm of higher education, oriented towards the selection of the future elite, the length of study in itself works as a selection tool.

With massification of higher education from the 1970s onwards, as well as changes in the purpose and social functions of universities, the length of study became a policy issue. Each year of an individual’s study required  a significant public investment, therefore the time spent acquiring a degree became a budgetary concern. Moreover, time spent at colleges and universities was increasingly seen as an inappropriate mechanism of social selection, favouring those who had the resources to spend their young lives studying and punishing those unable to postpone earning a salary for too long. Additionally, demographic challenges increased the need to raise the activity rate in the population, and the need to recruit  young people for the job market sooner. Consequently, governments started to develop policies to shorten the length of study, shift some of the financial burden to students, and provide universities with the incentives for shorter study programmes.

By the time the Sorbonne and Bologna Declarations were discussed and approved, in 1998 and 1999 respectively, this policy challenge had become very real. In at least two of the signatory countries of the Sorbonne Declaration – Germany and Italy – studying until the age of 28 was the rule, not the exception. Ministers were very interested in the Anglo-Saxon qualification structure, because it would allow them to break up very long study programmes and stimulate students to acquire a first degree after only three or four years of study. Next to the objectives of having more comparable degree and credit systems and fostering mobility, the Bologna Declaration also intended to shorten study trajectories.

Data presented in the latest issue of the Education Indicators in Focus series allows us to evaluate the changes in the length of study careers, at least up until graduation with a first degree. Comparing OECD countries with available data, we learn that the median age of graduation decreased from 25.2 in 2005, to 25.0 in 2008 and down to 24.7 in 2011. This means that in 2011 the median student graduated half a year earlier than in 2005. The decrease differs across the age distribution: it is less significant for students graduating at a younger age, but it is very significant among students graduating at a higher age. The age of graduation at percentile 75 dropped from 28.7 in 2005 to 27.9 in 2011. Thus the share of students who took many years to graduate dropped significantly.

Students also entered universities at a slightly younger age, but the earlier age of graduation is predominantly determined by shortening the time spent acquiring a first degree. Between 2005 and 2011, the time taken to acquire a first degree fell by almost half a year, from 4.6 years to 4.2 years. Of course, many students pursue their studies beyond a first degree, but the combined effect of shorter study programmes and more effective study trajectories is quite significant.

These average changes conceal huge variations across countries. In some countries, the decrease in the median age of graduation between 2005 and 2011 is very marked. In Belgium, Denmark, Iceland, Norway, Portugal and Slovenia, the median age fell by more than one year between 2005 and 2011. Despite the general trend, in some countries including Austria, Israel, Spain and Turkey, the median age of graduation actually increased during the same time frame. . Various institutional factors and participation patterns might explain these differences, but the socio-economic context should also be taken into account. For example, huge youth unemployment in Spain probably played a role in keeping students longer at university in 2011 compared to 2008.

The average decrease in the age of graduation, especially in countries where youth was less affected by the economic crisis and the job market still offered prospects for earning a living, might also be explained by composition effects. Students coming from less affluent families tend to have shorter studypaths, because they cannot afford to postpone earning a salary fortoo long. In several countries this is also noticeable in the increase of the number of students studying part-time. Flexible work-study arrangements allow students to combine study with work. When the economic crisis erupted in 2008, on average 19.6% of students studied part-time; in 2011 this number had  risen to 22.0%. The increase was very significant in again, Spain (from 12.2% to 27.1%), Germany (4.5% to 13.5%), Belgium (12.6% to 17.3%) and Canada (17.7% to 22.8%). Credit-systems and increased flexibility in study arrangements have provided more opportunities for part-time study and combined study-work trajectories. Of course, having more part-time students works against having a lower median age of graduation.

Today a first university degree – in most cases a bachelor’s degree – takes less time to acquire than in the past. Pressures on students to graduate faster have increased, both as a result of government policies, institutions’ actions to improve quality and efficiency and the general socio-economic context. University might be less leisurely, but on-campus life, learning soft skills such as making friends and forming social networks, is still an essential part of nurturing successful study.

Education Indicators in Focus, Issue No. 23, by Dirk Van Damme and Corinne Heckmann
On this topic, visit:
Education Indicators in Focus:
On the OECD’s education indicators, visit:
Education at a Glance 2013: OECD Indicators:
Chart source: © OECD

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