In July, 65,165 new students were admitted to Danish universities. It can be an exciting moment for those with a dream career in mind, as they continue on the path toward their goal. And for those still uncertain about what to do with their lives, going to university can be an important stage in their journey of self-discovery.
But not everyone makes it through, and around one in three university students in Denmark drop out, most in their first year. According to a recent study conducted by the European Commission, Denmark has the highest university dropout rate in Europe, followed by Norway and the Netherlands.
“The high dropout rate represents a major issue in the Danish education system, considering that it is very expensive for society and institutions, and disruptive for the students who are likely to experience psychological problems because of dropping out,” says Bjarke Tarpgaard Hartkopf, special adviser at the Danish Evaluation Institute (EVA).
He was project leader and principal investigator in a recent study conducted by EVA into the high dropout rates among university students in Denmark.
“Dropout rates are important, but we found that the research isn’t advanced in this area, so we decided to dig into the topic in depth,” he says.
The study assessed how experiences early on at university often influence the decision to either continue studying or abandon the course. They found that the increased likelihood of dropping out during the first year is often directly linked to the student’s social experience, especially during induction week.
“One of the most important parts of any university programme is the beginning, as it’s a vulnerable time in the lives of many students,” observed Hartkopf.
“Many students move to a new city, find their own place, and start a new life, so the socialisation is very important to them. It is this vulnerability in the student’s life that may be one of the factors that links the duration of induction programmes to lower dropout rates. The study found that the duration of the induction program had a direct effect on dropout rates – the longer the induction week, the lower the dropout rate.”
The drinking habits of dropouts
The EVA study highlights a possible relationship between the drinking habits of students and their decision to either drop out or continue their studies. According to the research, students who don’t drink and those who drink excessively are more likely to drop out than those with a moderate approach to alcohol consumption.
Given the social function of alcohol, it is not surprising that different drinking habits can affect a student’s social life at university.
“If you drink, you are more likely to socialise,” says Hartkopf. “One of the possible explanations of these findings is that if you don’t drink, it’s harder to be part of activities, meaning that you are at greater risk of being excluded.”
“If you drink, you are more likely to socialise,” says Hartkopf. “One of the possible explanations of these findings is that if you don’t drink, it’s harder to be part of social activities, meaning that you are at greater risk of being excluded.”
Amalie Ulla Pontoppidan Witt was born in Copenhagen and is currently a theatre, performance and musicology student at the Institut for Kunst- og Kulturvidenskab (IKK). Pontoppidan quit social drinking over a year ago. While she still enjoys a glass of wine with her food every now and then, she gave up alcohol consumption at parties and other social events.
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“I stopped drinking because I am tired of this culture. And I am sick of being hung over and having blackouts on a night out,” she explains.
Pontoppidan points out how induction week at university often involves excessive drinking, so she understands why students who don’t drink could feel socially excluded.
“Alcohol is an extremely large part of the induction week, and it is very hard to imagine the week without any alcohol involved. In a way, alcohol is used to help students socialise, but sometimes it feels drinking is more important than getting to know new people and the course you just started.”
Pontoppidan no longer attends the traditional Friday bar at university, put off by the excessive drinking. And her friends and peers haven’t always been particularly supportive of her decision.
“I once experienced a guy who got offended when I told him about my decision not to drink. He was worried that I would remember everything he said and did while he was drunk and I was sober. This gives you an idea of how embedded alcohol is in our culture, and explains why it is so rare to find people who decide not to drink at all,” she said.
The EVA study recommends that educational institutions introduce alcohol policies that ensure social inclusion for students who decide not to drink alcoholic beverages at social gatherings.
Pontoppidan agrees that alcohol-free choices at the Friday bar can be a positive signal to those who don’t drink. She adds that tutors, who bear some responsibility for fostering social inclusion, should not take for granted that all students enjoy binge drinking.
“I think that serving a wider variety of non-alcoholic drinks at the student bar would be a small step towards a greater understanding of how to socialise without alcohol, or still being able to socialise with those who do drink,” she observed.
Some universities have already taken steps to better include students who do not drink. The Technical University of Denmark (DTU) has given students the option of an alcohol-free intro week for the past three years. The intro week is otherwise the same – the students go on a trip together to play games and get to know each other – just without getting drunk in the process.
“I think that the drinking culture in Denmark dictates way too much what to do and how to behave at a social event,” says Pontoppidan.
“If you decide not to drink, you must have a valid reason for it, and it is never good enough to just say you don’t feel like it or simply don’t want to.” M