Don’t drop me now

With so much riding on it, it’s no wonder that university retention rates are a hot topic, as Luke Dormehl discovers

For a university, students dropping out of courses means – among other things – lost income. A full-time, non-residential student who withdraws in the first semester from an institution charging £7,500 fees represents the equivalent to at least £24,300 of lost income to the institution over the duration of a three-year course.

For a student, dropping out of university makes lower earnings more likely in later life, and may bar the way to a number of desirable careers. As Dr Emma Tominey, a lecturer in Economics at the University of York, told the Guardian earlier this year: ‘It is hard enough for a graduate to get a job. It is even harder if you have dropped out of university.’

An important clarification to make are the two measures of student retention that are commonly used in respect of full-time undergraduates. The first of these is ‘completion rate’ referring to the proportion of starters in a year who continue their studies until they obtain the qualification they set out to achieve, with no more than one consecutive year out of higher education along the way. A more immediate measure of retention is the proportion of an institution’s intake, which is enrolled in HE the year following their first entry. This is the ‘continuation rate’.

The UK is often cited as having high rates of student retention in both of these metrics as compared to international comparators. However, it is far from a simple job to draw generalisations about these figures, which vary widely from university to university. At the University of the West of Scotland, for instance, the dropout rate for the 2010–2011 academic year stood at 23%, while at London Metropolitan it was 16.6%.
On the other end of the spectrum was Cambridge, which saw just 1.3% of students drop out during the same timeframe, while that number hovered around 1.7% for Oxford and Exeter. Retention rates also vary depending on course. At many universities, vocational courses will see higher rates of student retention than non-vocational ones.

‘The picture is a complicated one,’ acknowledged John Hilsdon, head of learning support and wellbeing at Plymouth University. ‘We’re aware at Plymouth University, and I’m sure this is similar at many other universities, that retention varies greatly from programme to programme, and that there are a variety of reasons for this. Sometimes poor retention can be the result of poor teaching. Other times it is because a programme draws from a particular demographic, where social and economic factors are such that retention might be more of a factor. There’s no one-size-fits-all answer to the question of what causes retention issues, but it’s our job as a University to drill down and determine what those might be, so that we can figure out how best to improve for the benefit of our students.’

What works?

For various reasons, some of which have nothing to do with the actual qualities of a university, a certain number of students are always going to drop out.
A university is never going to achieve 100% retention or completion rates year-on-year, just as a technology is never going to achieve absolute market penetration: the latter being why saturation point is described as 90%.

But this in turn doesn’t mean that universities are powerless to do anything about it. A 2012 report entitled: What Works? Student Retention & Success, conducted large amounts of research into the subject of student retention. What the study’s author, Professor Liz Thomas, observed was that, although one in 12 UK students, or just over 8%, leave HE during their first year of study, between 37% and 42% of students consider withdrawing from HE during that time. As Thomas concluded: ‘Improving student belonging should be a priority for all programmes, departments and institutions.’

So how can this be done? No doubt there has been a great deal more focus on the idea of a ‘student experience’ over recent years, referring both to teaching quality and academic metrics, as well as to student life away from lecture theatres.

‘Our approach at the University of Manchester is to consider student retention in the context of supporting all our students to succeed,’ said Louise Walmsley, director of teaching and learning support at Manchester. ‘We address this through a variety of measures including the provision of support services, Welcome Week at the start of each academic year for new and returning students, a comprehensive induction framework for new and returning students, the allocation of an academic adviser to each student, and peer mentoring.’

Each of these help create engagement in students from day one, with Welcome Week being ‘comprehensive and … critical in helping students to settle in and to become part of the University community.’ Support is also available to students throughout their time at the University of Manchester. ‘We provide a range of central support services ranging from the Library and Learning Commons through to the Disability Support Service, Counselling Service and pastoral care in halls of residence,’ Walmsley said. ‘Support is also provided within academic schools.’

The Hawthorne effect

While the University of Manchester told University Business about its broad, cover-all approach to student engagement, other universities were keen to demonstrate their passion for specific programmes targeted at improving student retention.

At Plymouth University, for instance, there is the Peer Assisted Learning Scheme (PALS), which has been a principle initiative over the past three years and is now available to students in more than a third of all eligible undergraduate programmes at Plymouth University.

‘What we try and do with Peer-Assisted Learning is to promote student engagement by encouraging students to get involved and contribute to the service that they, as consumers, are enjoying,’ said John Hilsdon. PALS gives more experienced students the opportunity to work with first-year learners by heading-up student-led groups that meet once a week to engage in group discussions about all aspects of university life.

‘We’ve seen that this can help increase motivation and engagement in the courses it is running in,’ Hilsdon noted. ‘We’re even incorporating it into the curriculum to some extent, by encouraging those who get involved to see this as a way of gaining communication and leadership skills that will build their CV.’

Ultimately, what retention might come down to is making sure that students feel that they are receiving a valuable experience in which they too are valued. As universities grow, it is important that students feel that they are being listened to as individuals, and supported in ways both inclusive and non-inclusive of the purely academic. The so-called ‘Hawthorne Effect’ states that people will improve or modify aspects of their behaviour when they know that they are being watched and studied. Translated to academia, a similar idea (borne out in various studies) is that the more feedback students receive, the less likely they are to drop out and the more likely they are to achieve high grades in the end.

Widening participation

As universities increase in size it is inevitable that a larger number of students will drop out. The key, however, is trying to reduce the overall dropout rate. This can be done by promoting academic engagement within courses, and ensuring that students feel a sense of belonging outside of it.

But is retention simply another metric by which universities can achieve funding sources and higher league table places? According to John Hilsdon it is this, but also so much more.

‘The issue of student retention really accompanies the question of widening participation in higher education,’ he said. ‘This is a social mission that universities have carried since the 1990s, although the idea behind it goes back a lot further. Where previously universities had been an elite system based purely on academic performance evidenced under particular conditions, increasingly universities must be accessible for people from all backgrounds, including those with the ability to benefit from HE, but not always with the academic background for success. That isn’t anything to do with intelligence, but is all to do with the opportunities they received before reaching HE. We need to make sure that our universities are supporting all of our students and doing everything that we can to make sure they are able to become valuable members of the university community. And that means properly engaging with the subject of retention.”


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