Comparing Higher Education Entrance Qualifications and Exams in Europe

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Countries that offer non-selective and open access to higher education also see high drop-out rates. RAND Europe compared admission requirements across Europe and in other countries and recommends the creation of either a registry of European Union admissions' agencies, to share best practices, or a European-wide support system to act as an information portal and support service for higher education admissions in Europe.

Background & Goals

Several European countries, motivated by a strong egalitarian principle, offer non-selective and open access to higher education. For example, admission is centrally regulated and conditional only on passing high school leaving exams in France, Germany, Italy and Slovenia. Unfortunately, failure rates are sky high — in France, close to 50% of first year students drop out.

These systems also tend to also have the lowest proportion of pupils from disadvantaged background, according to a large-scale survey conducted by Eurostudent in 2011. And the increase in enrolment rates is in general not matched by a proportional increase in public (or private) expenditure, putting higher education institutions under extreme financial pressure.


In an effort to tackle the challenge of admissions in higher education in Europe, the European Parliament commissioned a study by RAND Europe and LSE Enterprise, the consulting arm of the London School of Economics, to compare admission requirements across Europe, the US, Japan and Australia.

Entry requirements play an important role in solving the concerns mentioned above, because they can help to match applicants to the most appropriate course of study (hence reducing failure rates), as well as regulate enrolment across disciplines to meet the needs of a country.

This study aimed to:

  • Assess various types of entry requirements across select case studies in the EU, neighbouring country Turkey, as well as the US, Japan, Australia, based on their ability to meet quality standards in higher education, to be equitable.
  • Identify best practices which could be transferrable across countries
  • Suggest how to promote the mobility of students who transition from secondary to higher education.



  • The report underlined some practical issues which could be easily ‘fixed’. For example, the number of vacant places or applicants unable to find a suitable course could decrease in Italy if the admission procedure started earlier than July (for an entry in October).
  • Admission systems also appeared administratively complex because of recent changes in the responsibilities of universities in certain countries. For example, students have to navigate two admission systems in France, where a centralised admissions service coexists with an institution-wide system.


  • The report also argued that the likelihood to succeed in a degree was as important as the capacity to enter university. Hence, admission requirements could be used not just to regulate entry, but also as a tool to support student success through a rounded approach to measure students’ likely progression throughout their degrees.
  • Countries that require application forms, interviews, and additional tests have higher graduation rates. According to OECD data, 51% of young adults at the typical age of graduation were expected to graduate; the rate was 38% in the US. This percentage dropped to 30% in Germany and 32% in Italy, where the secondary leaving diploma remains the main university admission requirement.
  • However, introducing new admission criteria to increase equity in access, whether it be intended as a substitution or addition, should also be introduced with caution to avoid an inflation in requirements, as was the case in Sweden following the introduction of the standardised test SweSAT.

Student Mobility

  • Finally, increasing student mobility potentially increased the transaction costs of students submitting multiple applications across countries. These transaction costs could be reduced if national admission agencies (or universities) could communicate information regarding the applications they receive.


The report hence recommended to the European Parliament two potential models to encourage greater coordination between European admission agencies:

  • In the first model, European agencies (or universities) could be encouraged to find further information and communicate regarding their best practices through the creation of a registry of European Union admissions' agencies.
  • In the second model, a European-wide support system could be set up in order to facilitate the administration of multiple applications made throughout Europe. This support system would act as an information portal and support service for higher education admissions in Europe.

Project Team

  • Cecile Hoareau McGrath
  • Michael Frearson
  • Catriona Manville
  • Barbara Janta
  • Benoit Guerin
  • Daniel Schweppenstede


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