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Student dropout in Sweden is caused by neoliberal policies

The persistent problem of dropout

Swedish schools have slipped from being one of the world’s best in international ratings to one of the most mediocre in Europe. Today, Sweden has some 400.000 university students. In 1990, we had 150.000. This is an increase of ca. 130% in 30 years. Thirty per cent of these students will drop out. Figures from the Swedish Association of Local Authorities show that 31 percent of students are unable to complete their studies at the gynmasiet within the expected three years. Even after four years, about a quarter of students have yet to graduate. Major socio-geographical differences exist (see here). Despite reforms to widen access, students having well educated parents are highly overrepresented while students from working class homes are underrepresented. Gaps between the best and the poorest performing students continue to grow. Today, class is the biggest factor behind school dropout. Children from low-educated single parents on poverty wages or social benefits living within a social housing project do worst (see here). Socioeconomic factors also play at school level. The schools with the greatest educational and social challenges experience the most difficulties in recruiting skilled teachers. The system benefits children with rich parents living in the major urban areas. Students dropping out are at risk: they are worse off in relation to get into employment, earn  a reasonable income and enjoy less social status than if they never entered higher education (see here).

The problem of dropout is far from new. Educational researchers have studied dropout for the last three decades. As Betsy Barefoot writes most of the research has tended to focus upon individual student characteristics or the impact of external environments such as family composition and poverty. There has, all by all, been relatively little research that explores the role of the university environment— especially the classroom itself— and the practice of thesis supervision on student persistence. University educators employ a variety of programs to improve retention – first‐year seminars, learning communities and supplemental education – but low retention remains disappointingly static. Researchers trying to identify the determinants of dropout mainly look at individual students – their gender, class, parents, socioeconomic status, ethnic background. Unsurprisingly, recommendations deal with greater efforts that students should make and with remedial actions and other academic interventions, such as tutoring, feedback, progress monitoring and cooperative learning. But such interventions are absolutely insufficient in themselves.

How can dropout be prevented or reduced? Two different sorts of measures are in order. The first type concentrates upon measures that can be implemented in the system as it is. The second set argues for fundamental changes. Here, I am more concerned with the second type. I do not deny that positive changes can be implemented and that beneficial outcomes can be achieved while leaving the structure of higher education intact. Efforts to integrate new students better into the university are beneficial. So is better monitoring of the achievement and progress of students. More human contact increases motivation. But when some 100.000 students drop out of education per year, it is sheer illusion to think that providing mere fixes to the system can solve the problem.

Secondary education

The problem of dropout at university level often originates in secondary education. Gaps in learning are insufficiently dealt with at this level for several reasons – lack of resources, lack of remedial teachers, lack of pedagogical competence. They may become major problems later on and they do indeed predict dropout. What can be done about it? Mark Fetler argues that higher academic standards are not associated with higher levels of dropout in secondary education. In fact, the effectiveness of measures of schools that result in higher student achievement enhance the effectiveness of dropout treatment programs. In plain language: raising the bar does not lead to more dropout, at least not on certain conditions, and it prepares pupils much more adequately for further education.

What are these conditions? They are, essentially, good teachers. Get good students into the programs that educate primary and secondary school teachers. Improve the status of the profession. Give teachers less administrative chores. Pay good teachers more. Educate teachers who specialise in remedial teaching. Improve learning environments and teaching conditions so that teachers feel more satisfied and the most-qualified stay in the profession. None of this is a secret. The problems lie in political decision-making and the funding.

If Sweden wants well educated people it has to decrease inequality.  According to Eurostat, today 16 per cent of Sweden’s population – 1.5 million people – are at risk of poverty. Swedish households are among the most indebted in Europe. Sweden’s macroeconomic policy has been long-term deflationary: to keep inflation low and safeguard competitiveness, wage growth had to be moderate. At the same time, social welfare became more selective. Today, Sweden has the fastest growing income gap of all of 34 developed (OECD) countries. According to Thernborn, 80 years of progress have been wasted: today Sweden’s inequality is at the level of the 1940s, if not the 1930s. According to figures from Statistics Sweden, the country’s poorest 30 per cent have no net wealth at all, merely net debts (see Therborn in Sociologisk forskning). The richest 1 per cent in Sweden captured 20 per cent share of private wealth in 1978; in 2006, they took home 40 percent. There is no doubt that it is higher today. Sweden does not levy taxes on gifts or endowments, it has no property tax and there is no other wealth taxation. Business owners benefit from one of the lowest corporate tax rates in the EU.

About one-third of Swedish secondary schools are so-called ‘free schools’. In January 2012, a free school license was advertised on ebay, an event that was celebrated in some quarters as a liberal triumph as it proved Sweden’s ascendance into the world elite of privatisation and deregulation (Svenska Dagbladet). Housing policies that once regulated the housing market have been dismantled since the 1990s. Non-profit municipal housing companies issued with social responsibility via the provision of housing to low-income families, have been privatized and those that remain in public are now profit driven. Most important has been the introduction of the voucher system. The effects on schooling are clear: aided by freedom of establishment, the voucher system channels public money to private, for-profit schools, primarily in privileged neighbourhoods, at the expense of municipal schools in disadvantaged areas. It has created a market for corporate schools which have specialised in making profits by attracting well-prepared, ‘cost-effective’ pupils of well-educated native parents, while directing children of low-skilled and not well-off parents to local, council-run schools of municipalities struggling with increasing deficits. This ‘free choice’ system, as, for example Pelling explains, is not cost-effective: it leaks public funds to private profits and has contributed to increasing inequalities in access to public services — and, hence, in health and educational outcomes. It is simply impossible to decrease dropout and inequality of access and result in education if the determinants of inequality are not being dealt with.

Many point the finger to the immigrants in the discussion about education. Sweden has historically welcomed large numbers of migrants, in particular migrants seeking humanitarian protection. Since 2015, a large influx of new arrivals with multiple disadvantages put the educational system under considerable pressure. No one would be served by denying this. However, the OECD’s Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) 2012 showed that Sweden had the largest deterioration in results for all 33 participating countries – years before the refugee ‘crisis’. So, it is certainly not only or even mainly immigrants.

The Swedish educational system needs more decency. As Andreas Schleicher (OECD) writes, schools – ‘free’ ones, of course, for their rich clients – should stop offering their ‘customers’ shiny buildings or driving license lessons and concentrate on adequate teaching. Teachers should stop giving their students better marks each year, while international comparisons portray a steady decline in student’s performance. Frankly, it is as absurd as it is scandalous. Instead, politically, the emphasis should lie on support for teachers (see above) and support for disadvantage: greater focus on enhancing language skills for migrant students and their parents; high quality reception classes and improved access for disadvantaged families.

And while there is no doubt that socioeconomic determinants are increasingly important, they do not explain everything. As Schleicher writes, ”(…) the performance challenge is not just an issue of poor kids in poor neighborhoods, but for many kids in many neighborhoods. PISA shows that the 10% most disadvantaged students in Shanghai easily outperform the 10% of kids from the wealthiest Swedish families” (see here). These statistics mean nothing if they do not lead to an argument for less inequality and stricter regulation of private schools that attract some of the best students and push up the results of their more mediocre clients.

”Nowhere does the quality of a school system exceed the quality of its teachers”, Schleicher rightly explains. And nowhere does the quality of the school system exceed the quality of the institutions in which it is embedded. ”Top school systems pay attention to how they select and train their staff. They attract the right talent and they watch how they improve the performance of teachers who are struggling,” Schleicher concludes. Exactly. Now make this into a reality for all schools. That is the challenge in a nutshell.

Higher education

Major problems exist at university level also. A long list of lamentations can be provided. Lecturers and professors often have enormous teaching loads. For many, there is simply little or no time left for decent research. As a consequence, students often enough meet exhausted and frustrated lecturers. Undergraduate students are being taught by PhD students. Lecturers often do not have great interest in the research of their undergraduates. The more time a lecturer spends on thesis supervision, the less time remains for her own research. There is the tendency to supervise only good students, the ones who will need the least work. Less than excellent students tend to end up with less than excellent supervisors. Ultimately and inevitably, there is the temptation to lower the bar. Do not forget: the financing of the department depends in part on the number of graduating students. If a degree deflates too much, the solution is simple: get another one. Get a Masters. Get a PhD. Very few people ever ask whether this is an efficient use of resources.

Instead, employers constantly complain about the skills gap, the fact that certain jobs cannot be filled because people lack the right competences. As it turns out, the skills gap is, by far, not a cause but a consequence of unemployment. Employers have been consistently demanding more educated people for jobs that do not require specialised education. Given all of this, is anyone surprised that some students are unsure what to study, that they feel disorientated, demotivated and, often enough, exhausted, even depressed? What we need are lecturers that are really good at teaching, devoted lecturers that make teaching into a priority, lecturers with specialised pedagogical insight into supervision – this is almost completely lacking (see the text on instructional coaching here). Lecturers need the competence to distinguish their supervising approach according to the individual needs and characteristics of their students. Non-traditional, mature, students require another approach of supervision than young, traditional, students, etc.

Another major problem lies in curriculum design. Which outputs are relevant is a question that is often determined by factors that are not pedagogical in the least. Today, the strategic policies of all higher education institutions cause number growth, but not education quality increase of the graduates. What is the use of letting graduate more and more students that are less and less competent?

The universities constantly need more students, regardless of the needs of society as a whole. We consider this progress. We are all getting better at what we do, we are better informed, more competent, more versatile, exactly what the country needs. Are we and does it? Academic output is being measured by the number of peer-reviewed publications and their impacts, that is the main criterium anyway. What about its cost? In 2013, Kaptein, a professor at Leiden University, calculated the cost per article of human sciences researchers who are being subsidised by the Dutch Scientific Council. According to Kaptein, one scientific article costs €15.868 – say 160.000 Kronor (the human sciences do best, as they are the cheapest). The publication of a book easily costs a quarter of a million euro. Kaptein admits that this is far from the total sum: costs for accommodation, heating, computers, books, funding for seminars and conferences are not included. Who ever asks the simple but crucial question whether it is all worth it to society? To his credit Lars P. Syll did, proving the exception (see here).  

Please, do not misunderstand me. I am not disputing that we should subsidise our research. Of course we should. The point is, as Kaptein argues, that more is far from necessarily better. There are so many publications that much of it could as well never been written. Their use cannot be measured by counting publications or their impacts. Supply and demand do not inform about quality or relevance. Many scientific articles are barely being read. Many articles are being produced in order to work at a university, often about important scientists who published much less, but much more important work. It would be great – and democratic – if we could have a discussion about this: goals, means, meanings, ends, justice, what knowledge is, what the driving forces behind research are, the role of groupthink, conformism and the glaringly obvious lack of critical thought and critical intellectual mass.

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