Are study times really a problem?

Every now and again, concerns are expressed that students spend too many years in higher education. This claim is based on the idea that graduates take too long to enter the labor market, shortening their working lives and damaging the national economy. A report by the Ministry of Economic Affairs and Employment reveals that the average time spent studying in Finland is not exceptionally long.

In fact, according to the Education at a Glance study conducted in Finland, degree completion within the intended time is better than the OECD average. The time taken to complete a degree has decreased year by year. According to Statistics Finland, the number of students completing degrees within the target time has grown in the last five years in particular.

The false impression that periods of study are long is due to the way the study period is calculated: this is based on the gap between the start and completion date of the degree. It does not take account of breaks from study, or periods of part-time study due to work. It would be more useful to calculate the so-called net study period, taking better account of the actual time spent studying.

In Finland, the period spent studying is lengthened by work. According to data collected for the Eurostudent IV survey in 2016, student livelihoods were the key factor in prolonging studies.

The Eurostudent survey shows that students work for two main reasons. Firstly, social security fails to cover the expenses of students and their families. This is pretty well the only reason among the over-thirties in particular. Another important factor is acquiring work experience during studies. Students no longer “enter working life” just after graduating: their careers begin flexibly while they are completing their degrees.

Osmo Kivinen and Jouni Nurmi (see also Merenluoto & Lindberg) have studied time spent working and studying in relation to students’ careers.  These studies reveal that recent graduates in Finland enter employment faster, and are more likely to find work that matches their education, than their peers in many comparable countries.

This has a positive effect on the length of working lives, due to the lack of long periods of unemployment after leaving university. One of the main reasons for this is work during studies. Although, on average, Finnish students enter university later than in some other European countries, the transition to working life is faster from the viewpoint of their overall careers.

The most sensible way of making study times more flexible would be to develop the student’s social security to better support studies, work and family life.

The debate on study times often overlooks the fact that students are not a homogenous group. As with careers, studies can include breaks or changes in direction due to having children, developing an interest in a certain field, or other unexpected changes in one’s own life or that of friends and family.

Statistics show that study periods are not problematically long in Finland, and do not shorten working life in general. If the sole focus is the length of studies, no account is taken of the fact that studying does not occur in a vacuum. A great deal occurs which is difficult to anticipate before, after and, above all, during studies.

There will be an increasing need for graduates in working life. Instead of focusing on study times, the key issue would be guaranteeing an increasing number of young people a place in higher education. This can be facilitated by increasing the number of starting places, enhancing equal opportunities in student admissions, developing transfer paths between courses, and investing in education in general.

Ainomaija Rajoo

Education Policy Adviser



Education at a Glance 2019. OECD Indicators. OECD, Paris 2019.

Completion of university education faster than before. Statistics Finland., sourced on 8 May 2020

Opiskelijatutkimus 2017. EUROSTUDENT VI Overview and Selected Findings. Publications of the Ministry of Education and Culture 2017:37.

Kivinen, O. & Nurmi, J.: Työ, koulutus ja osaaminen. Yliopisto ja ammattikorkeakoulu yhdeksän maan eurooppalaisessa vertailussa. Research Unit for the Sociology of Education, Turku 2008.

Kivinen, O. & Nurmi, J.: Opiskelun nopeus ja työmarkkinarelevanssi – korkeakoulupolitiikan dilemma? Yhteiskuntapolitiikka 76, 5/2011, 687-691

Merenluoto, Satu & Lindberg, Matti: The problems with prolonging studies and delaying: The beginning of graduates’ working careers from the Finnish national and international perspectives. Higher Education Research in Finland. Emerging structures and contemporary issues. Eds. Sakari Ahola & David M. Hoffman. Jyväskylä University Press, Jyväskylä 2012, 131 – 145.

Opiskeluaikainen työssäkäynti ja sen vaikutukset. Publications of the Ministry of Economic Affairs and Employment 26/2012.

Ainomaija Rajoo
Education Policy Adviser (quality of education, studies, working life)

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