Drop-outs: Hepi warns against “cack-handed” remedies

A new report looks at why students drop out, and examines how institutions can prevent non-continuation

The topic of non-continuation, or ‘dropping out’, is the focus of a new Higher Education Policy Institute (Hepi) report, published today.

The UK has the lowest university drop-out rate of any OECD country, reports ‘A short guide to non-continuation in UK universities (HEPI Policy Note 28)’ by Nick Hillman, director of the think tank.

Yet it is an issue that is “rising up the political agenda”, with the Office for Students (OfS) announcing in November 2020 that it was planning to judge the quality of courses at English higher education institutions by their continuation rates as well as by graduate outcomes.

“Dropping out from higher education is receiving more focus than ever before,” said Nick Hillman.

“Politicians and regulators are increasingly judging institutions by their non-continuation rates. There is even a chance that funding could be linked to student retention in future.

Not all instances of dropping out are bad. There can be good reasons why a student cannot or should not continue with their course – Nick Hillman

“It is good that people are discussing the issue in greater detail, not least because some students are more prone to dropping out than others – including Black students, part-time students, poorer students and commuter students. But it is nonetheless ridiculously easy to draw the wrong conclusions from the data.

“Not all instances of dropping out are bad. There can be good reasons why a student cannot or should not continue with their course. Moreover, the UK already has the lowest drop-out rate in the developed world. Cack-handed attempts to reduce this further could actually disincentivise the recruitment of disadvantaged students. It could also disrupt the Government’s own well-received plans to promote more flexible lifelong learning options.”

How to prevent non-continuation

As well as considering which students are most at risk of not completing their courses, the Hepi report also proposes ways of increasing the support available for students who are at risk of dropping out .

1. Use data better: universities need better understanding of the factors that raise student non-continuation rates.

2. Focus on specific groups prone to non-continuation, such as Clearing students and commuter students in London.

3. Ensure easy re-entry routes: a high proportion of students who drop out wish to return to education at some point.

4. Consider staging qualifications within higher-level courses: interim qualifications, as suggested by the Augar report, could motivate potential drop-outs to stay, but also ensure those who do leave have something to show for their time at university.

5. Provide a sense of belonging: “deepening and spreading a sense of belonging may need to include ensuring more people get their first choice course and ensuring the right support for those who end up at their second, third, fourth or fifth place”, says Hepi.

6. Organise exit interviews: finding out why a student wishes to leave would provide valuable qualitative evidence.

7. Reassess the suitability of maintenance support: students worry more about day-to-day living costs than their tuition costs.

“The best way to help students who are considering leaving but would benefit from completion is not heavy-handed regulation but instead to spread best practice,” said Hillman.

“Among our proposals are targeted interventions for at-risk groups, measures to encourage a greater sense of belonging among students and non-stigmatising re-entry routes for those who leave but want to start afresh. We also recommend exit interviews for early leavers, so that lessons can be learned when things do go wrong, and looking afresh at maintenance support to ensure students have enough income to live safe and stable lives.’

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