1 Introduction

One of the main challenges European countries face is having a highly-skilled workforce to meet the increasing needs of the economy for professionals, which have increased exponentially in recent years. This is especially the case for many Eastern European countries, which already had a low number of higher education graduates even before joining the European Union. Now, these EU members are also facing a demographic decline, combined with high emigration rates. As their higher education systems were already very selective, the composition of the student body has not significantly changed with regards to including vulnerable groups.

As part of the Bologna Process, all member countries committed to implementing national policies towards increasing access, progress and graduation of students coming from vulnerable groups (Bologna Process 2007). Nevertheless, even after ten years since the launch of the European Higher Education Area (EHEA), this is still an outstanding issue that needs to be addressed by countries.

Gender, parental education, socio-economic background still play an important role when looking at the level of access or the chosen educational path. As the Bologna Process Implementation Report (Commission/EACEA/Eurydice 2018) shows, women are highly underrepresented in fields such as services, engineering or information and communication technologies, while being overrepresented in the field of education, health and welfare and arts and humanities. Parental education is a strong predictor of student chances to access and finalise higher education. Data is showing that “entrants coming from low and highly educated families, the general patterns apply: while the share of new entrants with parents with low educational background is marginal, new entrants with highly educated parents are over-represented.” This is especially true in countries like Romania, Poland, Croatia or the Czech Republic. Higher education represents an important instrument to improve the fairness of societies. Not only for guaranteeing personal development via fairer access to education but also for developing a real knowledge society, a productive economy, increased social mobility and social cohesion etc.

Looking at the specific literature, one can see that definitions of fairness vary between societies and are differently translated depending on the structure of the higher education systems structures, organizational cultures within the academia and the involved actors within this sector. At the same time, access as an instrument is both path-dependent and embedded in multiple structures and changing processes. Actors, uses and users of access and admission policies change over time. This has consequences for both research and policies. Because these processes are multidimensional, they can only be comprehended through bringing together multiple research approaches.

State of Research in the Field

Literature on higher education transitions discusses a number of factors influencing the outcomes of transition processes. As (Coertjens 2021) sum up, research on transitions into higher education has focused on the “development of a student identity, students’ emotions, their motivations and learning strategies.” Haj et. all (2018) define the main selection mechanisms within the education system as those “limiting the share of pupils achieving the qualification necessary to enter HE, selecting after secondary schooling at the point of transition, and selecting during the study process”. The same authors underline how prior academic qualification (educational pathway), student choice and higher education institutions (HEIs) recruitment interact. These three actors are affected by regulations, incentives and information campaigns, which are the result of policy (Bemelmans-Videc 1998) (Howlett 2004). As such, these policy instruments can be changed to affect the way the three actors behave or to encourage certain behaviour. On the admission systems, there are a number of studies that map, categorise or classify systems of admission or components thereof (Clancy 2010; European Commission/ EACEA/ Eurydice 2014; Commission/EACEA/Eurydice 2018; Orr 2010). Broadly, an admission system determines not just how students end up (or do not end up) in higher education but also how they end up at a particular HEI and a particular programme of study. Even though there is extensive research looking at the process of admission and at first-year students, there is less research looking at students who do not reach higher education, besides the specific literature on early school levers and drop out as there are many students that even though they manage the finalise upper secondary education, they do not have the necessary credentials or simply do not apply to access higher education.

Massification and the Decrease in Student Numbers

According to the National Institute of Statistics, Romania has passe d through a massification process after the fall of the communist regime during which a centralised system was in place. The number of Higher Education Institutions, study programs and students increased exponentially, starting with 48 public universities in 1990 to a peaking number of 121 universities in 2000 (out of which 63 were private universities). This massification process was followed by a decline in both student numbers (by over 50% between 2007 and 2019) and in the number of universities (90 universities in 2019). This process was influenced by demographics and by the changes in the baccalaureate exam, and it impacted especially private institutions. (84% decrease in student numbers between 2007 and 2019).

All this influenced the participation of under-represented groups that has been preserved at a very low level. “Only 3.8 % of young people aged 25–29 from the 20 % of the poorest family backgrounds have graduated one cycle of higher education compared to 52.4 % of the top 20 % affluent sector” (World Bank 2011).

Romania—Last Place Regarding the Average Share of 30–34 year-Olds with Tertiary Educational Attainment

In the spring of 2009, the Council of Europe adopted the strategic framework for European cooperation in vocational education and training, and the main conclusion on tertiary education was that the proportion of people aged 30–34 attending and completing tertiary education should be at least equal to 40%. According to the monitor of education and training (European Commission 2020), at the level of the European Union, the objective was met, even the initial assumption was exceeded. In the case of Romania, the commitment assumed was 26.7%, and the education monitor shows that Romania has the lowest level of tertiary education (age 30–34)—24.6% in 2019, and in 2020 the level increased by just over one percent, without fulfilling the commitment, at 25.8% in the EU.

Access to Higher Education

According to Romanian legislation, until 2020, compulsory education included all levels of education between primary education and the first two years of upper secondary education.Footnote 1 The baccalaureate exam represents the final exam that assesses the competencies acquired by graduates in upper secondary education. High school graduates take a series of assessment tests, both oral and written. In order for a candidate for the baccalaureate exam to be declared “admitted”, he must pass all oral tests, receive the minimum “5” grade at all written tests and an average “6” grade.

Admission to Romanian higher education for bachelor study programs is organised by each Higher Education Institution based on the principle of university autonomy in accordance with the general framework. The framework includes a national methodology for admission to Romanian higher education with a series of minimum provisions that should be found in the institutional admission methodologies; a Government Decision with the fields of study and university study programs that includes the maximum student capacityFootnote 2; and a Government Decision coupled with a Ministerial Order with the number of study places funded by the state for each higher education institutionFootnote 3 The number of subsidised study places is allocated at the institutional level, and it is the universities’ decision to what study programs these places are being allocated.

A baccalaureate graduate may apply for several undergraduate programs at the same university or at other universities simultaneously but may pursue a single state-funded program. Admission is usually organised in two sessions (summer and autumn) and may include different types of admission, such as:

  • Dossier competition, where only the average grade from the baccalaureate exam matters (or some grades for specific topics within the baccalaureate exam);

  • Interviews;

  • Written exam;

  • Aptitude test, found especially in vocational bachelor’s degree programs;

  • A hybrid variant, in which both the average from the baccalaureate exam and the results obtained at a written exam or interview count.

2 Methodology

The analysis is based on data from the National Student Registry (RMUR) correlated at the individual level with the data from the baccalaureate exam through the Integrated Educational Register (REI), which is a platform that provides access to a person’s educational path by interconnecting the management systems in the educational sector. RMUR is a digital platform that provides integrated data management for all students enrolled in the Romanian higher education system for all study cycles.

In order to evaluate the proportion of high school students graduating and registering for the baccalaureate exam, statistical data from the Integrated Information System of Education in Romania (SIIIR) was used through the portal.

For the analysis, the selected cohort was the 2018 population of high school students enrolled at the beginning of the school year 2017/2018 in their final year of study in upper secondary education (XII class for full-time courses and XIII class for part-time courses).

A statistical analysis was conducted regarding the enrolment in the baccalaureate exam. For the baccalaureate exam, the selected population was “students from current generation” defined as students that graduated from upper secondary education in 2018. A unique database was created by interconnecting the data from each session of the baccalaureate from 2018, where only the last entry for students that participated in more than one session was kept. The analysis of first-year students at the bachelor level, the academic year 2018/2019, was conducted by examining the selected cohort. The academic status of this cohort was followed until the beginning of the 2020/2021 academic year to assess the “losses” from the normal academic path. Because of the limits regarding the available data on upper secondary students, the analysis regarding the transition towards higher education is not differentiated by the urban/rural background. This was analysed only for students that managed to enter higher education (based on the data from the National student Register).

As a secondary cohort, all first-year students from the academic year 2018/2019 were analysed in order to provide a full image of the student population entering higher education. While looking at the 2018 high school generation from the last years of upper secondary education to the third year in higher education, it is also important to understand who else enters higher education from an equity perspective. As the analysis will show, there is a considerable percentage of first-year students that are not part of the generation that graduates upper secondary education in the same year. This population may represent a way to mitigate the loss of human capital highlighted in this article.

The main objective of the analysis was to measure the losses of human capital between the final year of upper secondary education and third year of higher education and to identify the main pathways or typologies of students that have lower chances regarding access to higher education.

For the purpose of the analysis, the authors considered as losses all students who deviated from the standard academic progress (students with no delayed academic progress).

3 The Losses of Human Capital in Romania

Human Capital Losses—A General Perspective

Upper Secondary Education

At the beginning of the 2017–2018 school year, 149,689 high school students were enrolled in the final year of upper secondary education.

A first loss of “talent” at this point is found at the baccalaureate exam, where only 124,465 high school students were enrolled (current promotion). This means that almost 17% of high school students enrolled at the beginning of their final school year did not participate in the baccalaureate exam. The national legislation regarding compulsory education, prestige and stratification, as well as the funding system, play an important role in this regard.

As compulsory education means that all students, regardless of their academic performance at the national evaluation exam (after the eighth grade), have the right to enrol in an upper secondary education (Romanian Parliament 2011), the problem regarding underprepared students from lower secondary education will be “passed” on to the upper secondary sector.

This leads to the second factor, “prestige”, which is connected to the admission system in upper secondary. Because of the grades in lower secondary/national evaluation, underprepared students will end up in the least “prestigious” upper secondary schools, as the distribution is also based on the parents’ ranking of upper secondary schoolsFootnote 4 (Ministry of Education 2013). At the same time, students with the best grades will choose the best schools based on the lowest average admission grade from the previous year published in the official admission brochure (as an indicator of the probability of getting admitted to a specific high school) and the passing rate at the baccalaureate exam (as this is considered to be the best indicator of the schools quality). As the pass rate at the baccalaureate exam becomes an indicator of a school’s prestige, there are questions if teachers and schools may be inclined to “tip the scale” by not letting some students, that have low chances of passing the exam, graduate upper secondary education in time for enrolling at the baccalaureate exam.Footnote 5

As the admission process in upper secondary education leads to a stratification process, another factor that will influence the decision to enrol on the baccalaureate exam will be how students from disadvantaged groups and areas together with students coming from streams with a very low passing rate (e.g. technological stream) perceive their chances to pass the baccalaureate exam, enter and progress in the higher education system. As the “Study on the impact of admission systems on higher education outcomes” shows, “In disadvantaged areas, there are no targeted efforts to highlight higher education benefits in terms of student support services (scholarships, facilities—dormitories, canteens, etc.).” (Usher et al. 2017). As a consequence, students who feel they have little to no chance to pass the baccalaureate exam, or students who perceive that costs for higher education may be too high will be less likely to enrol on the baccalaureate exam.

The third factor, “the funding system”, can also influence schools in promoting students until the end of the study cycle as the per-capita formula would influence the amount of money a school receives. This, correlated with the fact that a school needs a minimum number of students (300) to avoid a merger with another school, will put pressure on school administrators and teachers.

Looking at the baccalaureate exam results, 11,351 students did not take all the subject exams. As a result, they were considered “absent”. These students represented over 9% of all students enrolled in the baccalaureate exam and were not taken into account in the final official calculation of the passing rate of the exam.

This loss is highlighted separately because of methodological issues. As the ministry is calculating the passing rate at the baccalaureate exam, “absent” students are not taken into account. Moreover, students that know they failed the oral or written tests and chose not to participate at the rest of the tests, are considered absent. As the data shows, the number of students in this category is high enough to be considered an important loss.

At the end of the baccalaureate exam, 91,004 students from the 2018 promotion were declared admitted, and 33,461 did not pass the exam, meaning an official pass rate of 73.12%.

Higher Education

Out of the total number of Romanian students enrolled into the first year of the bachelor programs in the academic year 2018/2019, approx. 59% were students from the 2018 generationFootnote 6 (that passed the baccalaureate exam in the same year).

The rest of the first-year student population was comprised of students who passed the baccalaureate exam in the previous four years (approx.18%) and students that passed the baccalaureate exam before 2014 (23%).

Moreover, looking at the 2018 generation approx. 26% will not be enrolled in the third year of the bachelor program by 2020/2021 (Table 1).

Table 1 The evolution of the student cohort between 2017/2018 and 2020/2021

By comparing the 50k students who managed to go from the last year of high school to the third year of the bachelor program with the three control groups (the group of students that did not enrol at or pass the baccalaureate exam, the group of students that have enrolled in a higher education bachelor program but did not manage to make the transition to the third year of the bachelor program in time), some conclusions arise.

The Factors That Influence Access to Higher Education

1. Geography

Urban Verses Rural Areas

Students from rural background have less chances of entering upper secondary education. With 80,000 students in rural areas enrolled in the last year of lower secondary education compared to only 10,000 upper secondary study places in high schools located in rural areas, students with rural background face serious obstacles in accessing upper secondary education. The first barrier encountered by students living in rural areas and choosing to pursue upper secondary education in a high school located in an urban area is the financial expenses caused by daily travel. This also means extra time for students to get to and from school, which can translate into less time spent studying and creating obstacles in socialising with colleagues.

For the students that manage to access an upper secondary institution located in the rural area, data shows that only 26.6% of the students enrolled in the final year of upper secondary education manage to pass the baccalaureate exam (with a lower average mark of 7.41 compared to 7.95 for students that have studied in high schools from urban areas). Once these students manage to enter higher education, the percentage of “losses” by the third year is similar to students that have studied in urban areas (\(+\)1.7%).

Looking at the declared residence of the student population from the first year of the bachelor degree (current generation), 35.5% of the students had their declared residence in a rural area (Figs. 1 and 2). Looking at their progress in higher education, the data also shows similar “losses” with students with urban residence (−1%).

Fig. 1
figure 1

Pass rate at the baccalaureate exam by referenced cohort and upper secondary institution location. Source, author analysis Note 1: The population “students enrolled at school” included all students that were enrolled in their final years of study (class XII for full-time courses and class XIII for evening or part-time classes). Note 2: The population “students enrolled at the exam” includes all students from current generation who enrolled at the baccalaureate exam and participated in all exam tests. This population is the reference population for the official statistics

Fig. 2
figure 2

Source RMU, author analysis

Percentage of first-year students by area of residence N: 56066.

Area of Residence

Students from certain counties in Romania have less chances to enter higher education. Data shows that students residing in certain countiesFootnote 7 have less chances to register at the baccalaureate exam, to pass the exam and/or to enter the Romanian higher education system. As previously shown, the national legislation regarding compulsory education, prestige and stratification, as well as the funding system, play an important role in the enrolment rate at the baccalaureate exam. For example, Caraş Severin county (69.4%), Mehedinţi county (72.1%) or Olt (73.81%) have much lower enrolment rate at the baccalaureate exam compared to counties like Harghita (92.5%), Ialomiţa (90.0%) or Sălaj (90.1%).

Student passing rate at the baccalaureate exam also varies between counties, with some counties having a low passing rate: Giurgiu (54.3%), Teleorman (57%), Călăraşi (60%), while other counties like Cluj, Bacău and Iasi have over 80% passing rate. This can be explained by the fact that the quality of education that students receive differs substantially between counties and is in particular much lower in rural areas (Fig. 3).

Fig. 3
figure 3

Source: SIIIR, author analysis

The enrolment rate for the baccalaureate exam for high school students in the final grades.

2. The Upper Secondary Stream

The path towards higher education is established long before the point of entry in higher education, and some streams give low probabilities for students to enter higher education.

Even before upper secondary, streams are being formed that will influence the chances of students entering higher education. As the results in the National Evaluation exam are defining in which upper secondary institution students are being assigned (based on a list of preferences), the perceived image of different streams and institutions from upper secondary plays an important role in the composition of the population of students that enter each stream in upper secondary education. Elitist “national colleges” from the theoretical streamFootnote 8 will receive students with the best grades, while the technological stream will have students with the worst grades. As in Romania upper secondary education is still part of compulsory education, and the funding of schools is dependent on the number of students, most of the students will be able to reach the final years of high school.

Looking at the upper secondary flow of the student population in the last year of study in 2018, the data shows 40.2% of high school students attended high school in the technological field, 51.6% in the theoretical field, and 8.2% in the vocational field.

The number of students studying in a technological field decreases drastically when the participation in the baccalaureate exam is analysed, as approximately 32% of the total students who took the baccalaureate exam come from a technological field, in the context in which they represent over 40% of the cohort of students in terminal classes.

This continues when it comes to the passing rate at the baccalaureate exam (45.7%) compared with 87.5% and 78.6% for the theoretical and vocational fields.

An even smaller number of them become students. In the academic year 2018–2019, approximately 13k of the first-year students in the current promotion had completed their secondary education in the technological field, 7k were graduates from the vocational field, and over 48k from the theoretical field.

Almost 30% of students who completed a technological or vocational course did not reach the third year of study in the academic year 2020–2021.

Fig. 4
figure 4

Distribution of the number of students by field of study in the final year of upper secondary education (2017/2018) and first year of the bachelor program (2018/2019). Data source, National Student Register, Integrated Information System of Education in Romania (SIIIR), author analysis

Table 2 Average grade received by high school students at the baccalaureate exam by stream of study

The average grades at the baccalaureate exam indicate that the students that manage to pass the exam do not have equal chances, as students from vocational and technological streams have, on average, lower grades (Table 2).

3. Form of Study

Students studying in evening or part-time classes have a very small chance of entering higher education. According to the national legislation, students in upper secondary can study in classes with a normal program (daily program), in evening classes and part-time classes. These classes are usually frequented by older students that have over three years difference compared to the standard age of students (art.25 (2)—Education law 1/2011). 17,305 students were enrolled in their final year of upper secondary education. Only 5,150 students were enrolled on the baccalaureate exam (which included previous generations). Out of these, only 781 students managed to pass the baccalaureate exam. No data was available regarding their progression to higher education.

4. Gender

With an almost 10% difference in the passing rate at the baccalaureate exam (77.4% vs. 68%), the number of female students eligible to enrol in higher education is higher (Fig. 5).

Fig. 5
figure 5

Pass rate at the baccalaureate exam (2018)-current promotion. Source, author analysis

Looking at the current generation (2018), there are no relevant differences regarding access to higher education based on gender in terms of quantity, as almost 75% of the population that passed the baccalaureate exam had enrolled in higher education (74.7% male graduate population and 75.8% from the female graduate population). This is not the case when talking about the received grade, as female graduates have an average of 8.10 verses an average of 7.71 for male graduates. Nevertheless in terms of progress, the female student population will lose 23.4% in the first three years compared to 30% in the case of the male population.

Fig. 6
figure 6

Evolution of the number of students from the 2018 promotion at different stages of their academic path and the percentage of the students enrolled in the final years of study that reached the milestone. Data source, National Student Register, Integrated Information System of Education in Romania (SIIIR), author analysis

5 The type of university that students apply to

Depending on the type of university, the composition of the student population can be different.

Looking at all students enrolled in the first year of bachelor degree within the private universities, one can see that these universities play an important role in attracting mature students, as the average age is five years higher (27.1 vs. 21.9 years). This is also correlated with the number of students that tried more than once to pass the baccalaureate (18.3% vs. 9.0%) and the average grade at the baccalaureate exam (7.58 vs. 8.03).

Looking at the students that were enrolled into the top five universities by number of students and diversity of geographical recruitment areas (basins) (UEFISCDI, 2020), the data shows that the average grade at the baccalaureate exam of the enrolled students (8.39) is higher than the average grade at the baccalaureate exam of the students enrolled in the rest of the universities (7.90). Looking at the type of upper secondary schools from which students come from, these five universities have the highest percentage of students coming from “national colleges”Footnote 9 (49%), which are considered to be the best upper secondary schools, compared to the rest of the universities which have an average of 39%. At the same time, in the selected universities, 30% of the students come from a rural background compared with 37% in the rest of the universities.

4 Conclusions and Recommendations

Access to higher education in Romania is polarised. Looking at the cohort enrolled in upper secondary education in the final year of study in 2018,Footnote 10 only 41% managed to access the Romanian higher education system, and 30% managed to be enrolled in the third academic year (2020/2021).

The impressive human capital loss is clear at every milestone of the academic progress. From the final year of study in upper secondary to the third year of study in higher education, Romania losses a quarter of its students at almost every milestone (enrolling at the baccalaureate exam—16.9%, passing the baccalaureate exam −26.9%, entering the Romanian higher education system—25.5% and enrolling in the third year of studies—26.1%) (Fig. 6).

Access to higher education depends on geography (in terms of urban/rural but also in terms of county). The geographical area of origin or study in upper secondary education has a major impact on the academic path of the direct beneficiaries. A series of structural factors, such as lack of high schools close to home, lack of adequate infrastructure to the house or easy transportation to schools and quality of education, create barriers in terms of access. The local policy towards student progression and enrolment in the baccalaureate exam can also contribute to the decline of students participating in higher education.

Also, because of the differences in the grades obtained at the baccalaureate exam and the fact that the use of the baccalaureate exam has become the main criteria of selection for most of the study programs in higher education, access to prestigious study programs and universities is hampered for students from under-represented groups.

There are streams in upper secondary education (e.g. technological studies) that represent a serious obstacle toward access to higher education. Technological education represents a barrier in itself to access higher education for students pursuing secondary education in this field. Even though it represents the 40% of the upper secondary system, with over 60,000 students enrolled in the final years of study, only 13,000 will study in a Romanian Higher Education Institution.

Students studying in evening or part-time classes have a very small chance of entering higher education. With a small enrolment rate at the baccalaureate exam and a passing rate of 15.2%, the number of students that study in part-time/evening classes is very small.

The admission process at the point of entry does not differentiate between male and female candidates. At the same time, female students have better grades at the baccalaureate exam, a higher passing rate, and even though in terms of quantity almost the same percentage of female baccalaureate graduates access the Romanian higher education, there is a difference in terms of the type of university and resilience as male students have higher “losses” by the third year.

Private universities play an important role in attracting mature students. This is important as mature students can mitigate the impact the “losses” of human capital from the current generation.

Recommendations to Reverse the Negative Trends from an Equity Viewpoint

Enrolment on the baccalaureate exam—As long as enrolment on the baccalaureate is done long before the end of the school year and schools need to update anyway the enrolment list with students that did not manage to graduate, enrolment should be mandatory or automatic for all students in the last year of study in upper secondary education. This would increase the number of students that take part in the exam as the current system does not allow students to enrol on the baccalaureate exam past the deadline.

Addressing obstacles students from rural areas face in accessing upper secondary education. Covering travel expenses, accommodation and even food is essential to improve the equity of the educational system as students coming from rural areas face disadvantages that affect their academic results, crucial for their progress in the educational system.

Reform of the upper secondary institutional architecture. As very few of the students enrolled in the technological stream, and especially in part-time classes, manage to enter higher education, it is important that the main intended goal is clear. Taking into account that a big part of these students can enter the labour market with a recognised qualification, as most of them (over 65%) undergo a separate certification exam, it is important that their courses during upper secondary reflect actual qualifications needed for the labour market.