Students slow to finish degrees

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Only 35- to 40 percent of Norwegian college and university students finish their degree programs within what’s considered the normal time, according to a report from the Ministry of Education and Research. Critics say the last two governments have failed to push through promised measures to speed up students’ progress.

The Faculty of Law at the University of Oslo, which is currently undergoing extensive renovation. Law is one of the most popular subjects in Norway, along with economics. Source: Wikimedia

The Faculty of Law at the University of Oslo, which is currently undergoing extensive renovation. Law is one of the most popular subjects in Norway, along with economics. Source: Wikimedia

The percentage of students in Norway completing their bachelor degrees within the expected time has dropped even lower, reported newspaper Aftenposten. Students are generally allotted three years for a bachelor’s degree, in part because Norwegian high school extends through what’s often equivalent to the first year of college in other countries.

The current government launched a “Quality Reform” program (kvalitetsreformen) 10 years ago to try to raise both the quality and pace of higher education in Norway, and one of its aims was to get more students to complete their degree requirements on time.  Figures show that the education ministry is a long way from achieving its goal.

In the spring of 2012, for example, only 39.7 percent of students who started studying for a bachelor’s degree three years earlier had actually earned it, according to the report.  In 2011, 41.4 percent had completed their degree programs after three years.  The equivalent figures for master degrees are also low, with 37 percent completing in 2012, and 36.2 percent in 2011. Among those students taking a two-year master’s degree on its own (as opposed to part of a five-year degree), the figures for completion were even lower.

When students take an extra year to complete their studies, around 55 to 60 percent complete the course of study, reported Aftenposten.

Figures and reasons vary
The report also shows that the figures vary widely, depending on where the student went to school and on the student’s declared major.  The three-year degree in nursing had the most students completing on time, and figures for pre-school teachers are also high. At the lower end of the scale are engineering students and those taking typical university subjects.  History and philosophy have the lowest completion rates of all, with less than a quarter of students getting their degrees on time.

The reasons for the delays vary, with individual faculties admitting that they don’t always follow up the students vigorously enough,  and blaming a lack of funding. The Norwegian students themselves also don’t have the same urgent financial pressures as many of their fellow students around the world. Most state institutions of higher education are tuition-free in Norway and the students also are eligible for  finanical support to cover living expenses from the Norwegian State Eductional Fund (Lånekassen) in the form of loans and stipends. Those who have extra financial backing from their parents can often afford to postpone their studies or take a year off for travel or work experience during their degree programs.

Students in Norway earned an average of 45.5 study credits (studiepoeng) per year in 2012, while  they’re expected to accrue an average of 60 credits per year. A bachelor’s degree is usually equivalent to 180 study credits and thus viewed as a three-year program.  The credits system was brought in under the Quality Reform program and follows the standard European Credit Transfer and Accumulation System (ECTS).

Generous government financing
The generous state system of loans, grants and stipends can also enable many students to delay their studies.  Students remain eligible for support as long as they have not fallen behind in their studies by more than 60 study credits. If the delay is caused by sickness, having a child or disability, they can retain support even if the delay is more than 60 credits. If their support is stopped due to delay, they can catch-up without support, and then re-apply for support. Students can also switch to another subject of study without this affecting their support. They can also  take a year off, and apply for a new loan when they return to studying.

The current system is also relatively open, allowing students to be accepted into major programs so that they can simply try them out, according to researcher Per Olaf Aamodt at The Nordic Institute for Studies in Innovation, Research and Education (NIFU). That is especially true for the non-vocational courses, he says, where some students begin a course of study without intending to take a degree.

Humanities students in particular tend to change their majors more often than students in other faculties, according to Gro Bjørnerud Mo, dean of the humanities faculty at the University of Oslo, who claims they need more resources for closer supervision of students.

The Quality Reform program was introduced in 2003 and aimed to provide closer supervision and more follow-up, compulsory teaching and written assignments for students. Many of the old degree titles and grades in Norway were also abolished, and replaced by shorter bachelor (three years) and masters’ (two years) degrees. There are also some five or six year degrees, which provide entry into the professions, such as psychology, law, and medicine.

An increasing number of students in Norway also go on to take PhDs (doktorgrad), so the total time that students spend in higher education can drag on, often into their late 20s or 30s. Others intersperse periods of education with periods of work, or receive funding from their workplace to take further education and training.

Students ‘lack intensity and concrete demands’
Knut Olav Åmås, editor of culture, debate and research at Aftenposten, believes Norwegian students spend too little time on their studies because many work part-time while studying. They also lack “intensive learning environments and specific concrete demands,” Åmås wrote in a recent commentary, blaming a prevalence of “old-fashioned” teaching methods, such as lectures in large auditoriums. The state rewards research over lecturing, Åmås argued, and lecturing is not a good career move for academic employees, with bad lecturers not being penalized and good ones not receiving enough encouragement from their managers.

Åmås also questions how the sector is divided up among 50 institutes of higher education in “little Norway,” which he describes as “bulging with different majors, many of them with embarrassingly few students.”

There are currently around 250,000 higher education and PhD students in Norway, and the sector receives government funding running into the tens of billions of Norwegian kroner.  Applications for higher education are currently at an all-time high, with economics and law being two of the most popular subjects.

Views and News from Norway/Elizabeth Lindsay

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