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The 1998 reform of postgraduate education — throughput and graduation

The 1998 reform of postgraduate education, which was presented in the Government´s budget proposal 1997/98:1, had two objectives for postgraduate education: (1) increased throughput and (2) an increased graduation rate.

In order to achieve the objectives, a number of regulation amendments were introduced on 1 April 1998. These meant that, among other things, institutions could only admit postgraduate students whose financial support was guaranteed for the entire period of study. As of the 1998 appropriations documents to higher education institutions, the Government now also sets objectives for examination rates on postgraduate programmes.

The background to the reform was that the Government judged that the throughput on postgraduate programmes was too low, and referred to the fact that the 1969 reform of postgraduate education had not had full effect at all faculties. The rationale for an increased examination rate was that the demand for postgraduate qualifications, within higher education as well as outside it, was judged to exceed supply.

Both reform objectives have been followed up in the present study. The analysis shows that the objectives have largely been achieved: throughput in postgraduate education has increased, in general terms, after the reform, as has the graduation rate. More specifically, results show that:

  • In terms of the total number of postgraduate students, throughput has increased since the 1998 reform. For a group of postgraduate students who began studies after the reform (in 2000), 28 per cent have been awarded a PhD within a period of 5 years. The degree quota for beginners in 1990, measured over the same period of time, was only 16 per cent. Between these two cohorts of beginners, the improvement has been gradual.
  • Throughput has improved in all subject areas except medicine, odontology and pharmacy. The comparison applies to postgraduate students who began just before and just after the reform. But in medical subjects as well, throughput has increased if the comparison is made between beginners after the reform and beginners from the earliest years of the 1990s.
  • The scope for improvement in throughput has varied in different subject areas. Before the reform, throughput was highest in medicine. Medical students are still in the lead, but are now sharing it with postgraduate students in the natural sciences and mathematics, as well as in agricultural subjects.
  • Despite an increased throughput in the humanities and social sciences, subjects in these areas have the lowest throughput of all. That was also the situation before the reform.
  • Throughput has improved about equally for women and men.
  • The number of postgraduate degrees awarded increased in the years immediately following the reform, from 1,801 PhDs in 1997 to2,701 in2003. That is equivalent to a 50 per cent increase. The increase levelled off after 2003, but so far (2004 to 2006) it remains at that year´s high level.
  • The share of professionally active people (25-64 years old) with a postgraduate qualification has increased after the reform, from 0.6 per cent in 1990 to 1 per cent in 2005. And among researching and teaching staff in higher education, the share who have either a licentiate or a doctoral degree has grown slightly after the reform.
  • The Government´s graduation rate objectives for postgraduate education have been increased over several three-year periods. So far institutions have achieved the objectives at the total level, and the number of graduations has even exceeded objectives. For the 2009-2012 period, however, the Government has lowered the objectives somewhat compared with the preceding period (2005-2008). This is probably an adjustment to what is deemed a possible graduation rate at universities and university colleges. The lower numbers of beginners in recent years (2004 to 2006) also suggests lower graduation rates in future.

It appears justified to continue following up throughput and graduation rates, in part because further regulation amendments have been made after the 1998 reform, which also affect postgraduate education.

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