The national dropout rate for 2014/15 is 6.2%. This is near record lows, despite the increase in the total and proportion of students going to university, and proportion from the poorest backgrounds. The recent Sky News story tries to tell a national story using percentages for some courses with very small cohorts of students. In addition, sometimes figures on dropout rates can mask a more nuanced picture. For example, in one of the cases the students were on a foundation course that was a flexible pathway to a full degree programme; to describe them as dropping out is a misrepresentation.
Nevertheless, although the overall picture is positive, retention is not the same for all student groups and more can be done. Students from areas with low participation in higher education, classified by HEFCE's Participation of Local Areas (POLAR) methodology, have a slightly higher drop-out rate of 8.2%. Furthermore, dropout rates for mature students, many of whom study part-time or have family commitments, is 11.8%. Students from diverse ethnic backgrounds also tend to have higher dropout rates. Some institutions, often recruiting students from low participation backgrounds, also have higher dropout rates, 18% in the case of two institutions. All of this is a challenge to the sector.
Young first degree by POLAR
What can and do universities do to retain students? The first issue is ensuring that students make study choices that are right for them. Undergraduate study is often a three-year commitment, longer if studying part time. Universities engage with students through outreach programmes and should give students clear information about their courses. This challenge also encompasses the wider advice and guidance that prospective students receive from schools and career advisors which has seen cuts in recent years.
There are a range of ways that universities retain students. Professor Mary Stuart, the Vice Chancellor at the University of Lincoln, characterised this as a golden triangle of retention – dealing with your student's needs, creating a distinct culture and creating a sense of place for students. This includes induction, developing 'sticky campuses' and creating an inclusive community and practical measures such as timetabling and support. This is particularly important for students from widening participation backgrounds, part-time and commuting students.
Universities are also accountable for the retention of students. Data is collected and reported to national funders and regulators who can then demand action. Retention data is also included in the Teaching Excellence Framework. It is also presented to students in various places, including in league tables. Access and participation plans are increasingly looking at strategies for retaining students once they have been recruited. There are also wider questions about the financial support on offer for students from disadvantaged backgrounds that should be considered.
The core mission of universities is to educate students and it is in no one's interests for students to drop out. From a financial perspective, it is bad for students to incur costs without the benefit of a degree and bad for an institution that has lost future revenue. It can also impact on remaining students if their wider cohort drops away.
Ultimately, the key to all of this is ensuring that students are supported to achieve their academic objectives. There is an important issue to examine here, but scaremongering off the back of the experience of a handful of students does not help anyone.
Should it only be the academic objective I wonder? I have just this second come a tutorial where the student is suspending studies because of an amazing career opportunity. I know it will effect figures, but this is success surely? Shouldn't we also be mapping those who leave for good reason and whose studies have helped them?
Why not offer flexibility in course choices once the student has enrolled? How is extreme subject specialism a great preparation for career entry at 21?
"ensuring that students are supported to achieve their academic objectives" - does this mean we see a university academic experienced as divorced from a broader and transformative preparation for a meangingful life (with 'career' a key component of that)?
We ought to remember that the figures measured by HESA (6.2% in 2014/15) is only looking at 1st year undergraduates. There will be non-completion pressures on all students. That said maybe we are looking at these figures too crudely - transferable credit (in the spirit of Lifelong Learning) might be a better way of looking at some of these issues.