• Sun. Jul 14th, 2024

Eternal students: would the UK benefit from having a more relaxed higher education system?

ByBoaz Frissen

Nov 1, 2023

After a day of study, Lars comes home and parks his bike next to his house. His waft of old coffee and the rough stubble around his chin suggest he has had a long week. He hears the booming bass of a party next door, but himself goes up his staircase to his flat; time to sleep. His days of partying are over. He is 28, he is tired, and he is writing his bachelor’s thesis for philosophy. He sighs.

In the Netherlands, this type of student, the eternal student, is not uncommon. In Edinburgh, by contrast, it is. In Scotland, people study for their degree, and they take as little time as possible to finish it. Students finish their degrees in three, four years, and then, perhaps, go on to another study. In Scotland, Lars would probably have found a job by now. But which is the exception? Scotland or The Netherlands? Where does the difference come from? And which situation is preferable?

The eternal student is more common in other European countries. In the rest of Europe, only 40 percent of graduates are between the ages of 20 to 24. Whereas in the UK, 72 percent of students are in this age bracket. So almost three quarters of students in the UK finish their degree timely, in the planned time period, in contrast to other European countries. The UK is, as a European country, definitely the exception. In contrast to the UK, most European students finish their degree only between the ages of 25 and 29.

Where does the difference between countries come from? It comes from differences in tuition fees. An English student pays £9,250 a year for education, so it would be foolish and not feasible to study for a long period of time. It is the same in the US: most finish their degrees as quickly as possible, due to high tuition fees. Conversely, in Germany, for instance, people pay no tuition fees – and alas, people there study the longest of all of Europe. In The Netherlands, which gave a free sum of money to studying youth, the eternal student was common – until this money was taken away a few years ago.

Therefore, the eternal student seems to be the privilege of the more left-leaning education systems. But is it not a good thing that they are not as common in the UK? It can be argued that it is good to not have people such as Lars running around, and for students to become working members of society quickly. High tuition fees may motivate students to be serious about their studies and to want to finish a degree swiftly. A degree is meant, for many, to prepare for the labour market – to be useful. And taking a decade to get a degree in the arts could be seen as not ‘useful’.

However, having the opportunity to study for a longer time also gives students the freedom to find something they like. Or to do something interesting, and then something useful. A quarter of UK students are not satisfied with their degree. Why make them pay thousands of pounds just so they can rush through an education they don’t like? Also, university graduates’ job satisfaction in the UK is relatively low: in the UK it is 60%, whereas in a country like Germany, it is 65% – this might not seem like a lot, but this is a difference of a few hundred thousand people. Of these thousands of people there might well be a lot of people who could have been happier, had they changed studies.

In conversation with some students who have studied in the Netherlands it seems that the experience of the ‘eternal student’ is beneficial. Otto, age 22, who studied computer science because he wanted to make money, could not concentrate on this because he found it subsequently boring. He has now changed to astrophysics and is doing well: he is not a “sad man” anymore, he says. Had he not changed, he would have disliked his career. In addition to people in this situation, there is another category of people who might benefit from longer study: Cynthia, age 30, with depression, benefited from not having pressure to finish their degree. They are now resuming with another degree but are happy to have been able to study in a less pressured way and been able to take their time.

Also, both in the UK and in the Netherlands, many students work while studying, and the possibility of studying for a longer time is useful for these students. In The Netherlands, many of the working people take more years to study. In Scotland, this is more difficult. 70 percent of Dutch students work in contrast to half of the students in the UK do. Students who work, not surprisingly, also get lower marks- they have to juggle more obligations. But in the UK, if you do work, this often means working and also studying full time. If this weren’t the case, these (perhaps less affluent) students could juggle work and study more easily.

Changing studies or studying a longer time is important for people in these situations. For people in these examples a forced quick study would make studying less rewarding and more difficult. Time allows these people to develop. With lower tuition, some students would become members of the labour force less quickly, but the streets would not flood merely with people like Lars: for every eternal student, there would be a demotivated student who, well into their study, changes paths.

Image Credit: “Mature and part-time students” by uonottingham is licensed under CC BY-NC-SA 2.0.