OfS ‘concern’ as dropout figures continue to climb

Regulator chief executive Nicola Dandridge has threatened action if universities don’t demonstrate progress

The Office for Students (OfS) has raised its “concern” as latest figures show university dropout rates in England are continuing to increase.

The latest figures from the Higher Education Statistics Agency (Hesa) cover young and mature, full-time undergraduates during the 2017/18 academic year who quit their course.

After appearing to stall at 6.7% between 2015 to 2017, the share of young undergraduates at English universities who did not continue their course has jumped to 6.9%.

The proportion of mature entrants who did not continue their study in 2017/18 increased to 14%, up from 13.4% the previous year.

Responding to the statistics, OfS chief executive Nicola Dandridge said: “English higher education enjoys internationally high completion rates, but an increase in the proportion of students dropping out is a concern. Rates vary significantly between different higher education providers, and a number of providers will need to think seriously about what they can do to reduce these rates.”

“Where we have concerns about performance at individual providers, we will continue to take action as necessary to ensure that students from all backgrounds are able to fully realise the many life-changing benefits of higher education.”

Rates vary significantly between different higher education providers, and a number of providers will need to think seriously about what they can do to reduce these rates
– Nicola Dandridge, Office for Students

A spokesperson for the OfS confirmed the regulator would formally contact some providers and may  subject some to enhanced monitoring.

In a survey for Universities UK, two in five recent graduates said, if they could go back, they would make a different decision when applying higher education.

Read more: OfS launches new review into higher education admissions

Universities affected

The public universities with the highest non-continuation rates are overwhelmingly modern institutions. Forty-two universities had non-continuation rates above 10%; seven were private providers and six were small, specialist institutions. Of the remaining 29, 26 are public providers founded after 1992.

The institutions with the highest dropout rates, however, continue to be private, for-profit providers, like Bloomsbury Institute, GSM London and Arden University. Dropout rates for these universities were between 31% and 41%.

The University of Bedfordshire, which was established in 1992, has comparatively high non-continuation rates for both young and mature learners. The most recent statistics show that 31.3% of mature and 18.3% of young learners dropped out of Bedfordshire in 2017/18, making it the highest-placed public university on the list.

The dropout figures from Bedfordshire have continued to rise year on year since 2014/15. In that academic year, 12.4% of young undergrads and 14.4% of mature undergrads dropped out.

A comparatively high number of students who enrolled at Bedfordshire went on to re-enrol at a different university. In 2017/18, 7.7% of students accepted at Bedfordshire dropped out to switch university.

A spokesperson for the University of Bedfordshire said: “As a widening participation university we recognise that our students face many challenging barriers to success.

“We are working across the university and with our partners to ensure we have in place the right support for our students’ academic and personal success. Most recently we have introduced a number of targeted initiatives to improve continuation rates ensuring our students are best placed to succeed.”

Most recently we have introduced a number of targeted initiatives to improve continuation rates ensuring our students are best placed to succeed
– University of Bedfordshire

Another modern HEP with comparatively high non-continuation rates is the University of Northampton, which gained full university status in 2005. Hesa figures confirmed that 12.3% of its young undergraduates dropped out and 7.5% decided to switch to a different provider.

A University of Northampton spokesperson commented: “University of Northampton, like other higher education providers across the country, operates in challenging times. We pride ourselves on our initiatives to widen participation in higher education and recognise that a greater focus is required on closing the gap between the most and least deprived students in terms of non-continuation.”

The university described its dropout figure as “unfortunate”, but added: “It is worth noting that our benchmark figure is high and the deviation from this is not statistically strong. Factoring in the full range of students in that year, including mature students, the overall attrition position is healthier.

“However, we are not complacent and have created a number of new initiatives to help us continue being as supportive to all of our students as we possibly can. Providing a supportive culture of on-going and directed help and guidance to our students is one of our highest priorities.”

London Metropolitan University (LMU), which was also formed in the 21st century, rubs shoulder to shoulder with Bedfordshire and Northampton at the top of the dropout table.

In 2014/15, 17.3% of its young undergraduates dropped out; that figure has since risen to 17.9%. The figures for mature learners have also risen sharply, from 17.8% in 2014/15 to 19.9% in 2017/18 – just shy of one in five enrolled.

A spokesperson for LMU said the university was “confident” its dropout rate will decline for next year.

They added: “Students from low participation backgrounds are more likely to leave higher education than those from other backgrounds on average. Around 70% of our students come from low-income households, many are mature, or the first in their families to go to university; additionally, they are often working or have caring responsibilities alongside their studies.

“We will not change our commitment to empowering social mobility and will continue working hard to ensure every single London Met student has the best possible change of completing their degree and transforming their lives through excellent education.”

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