Sorana is Vice President Higher Education at the National Union of Students.
When asking if UK higher education has a ‘retention problem’, the obvious place to start is the known data on lower retention rates for certain groups of students, particularly mature, black and minority ethnic and students from poorer socio-economic backgrounds.
We’ll get to that later on, but it strikes me that there’s new retention problem on the horizon. Will all this worsen as a result of dropout rates being a core metric in the Teaching Excellence Framework (TEF)?
Teaching excellence is a complex and contested issue. NUS has consistently opposed the TEF in its current form, and is concerned about the impact it will have on students and the higher education sector as a whole. One of our major qualms concerns the core metrics of TEF, and how they may influence activities and behaviours of institutions in the coming years. Though there’s no doubt we have seen some positive successes out of government intervention in higher education, such as the impact of the Office for Fair Access in widening participation, the quick-fix, “light touch”, and rushed nature of this latest government initiative leaves a series of dangerous holes for institutions to fall down.
As one of three key metrics in TEF alongside student feedback and graduate employment, retention data is probably the one measure which institutions have the most power to directly shape and impact. There will be greater focus on student retention in higher education than ever before. Is that not a good thing? Well, I see two possible roads that universities could go down as a result of retention being put front and centre, one optimistic, and one far more pessimistic.
The optimistic scenario would see higher education providers decide to invest further resources and support in evidence based retention work. It’s not like we don’t have that evidence. The What Works? programme, led by Professor Liz Thomas for the Higher Education Academy, shows a firm link between student retention and a sense of belonging and engagement within the academic sphere. To put it simply – if you feel like you belong in your academic environment, you can survive and thrive.
However, all is not rosy on this front. Research from the National Education Opportunities Network (NEON) shows that the pressure of increased tuition fees has changed the behaviours of working class students. A new generation who are the first in their family to go to university have decided to study closer to home, stay in their family residence rather than move into university halls, and work more hours during term time. This can lead to less engagement with their academic environment, and a greater risk of non-continuation.
On top of this, many of these students are choosing courses they are less interested in but which they feel leads to greater graduate outcomes.
So we have a generation of students from poor socio-economic backgrounds, who are studying subjects they aren’t interested in, working instead of learning just to keep themselves afloat, going to universities based on their distance from home rather than where they’d like to study, and missing out on the experience of living independently in student communities – all because of financial pressures. It doesn’t sound much like widened access at all does it? No wonder they are more at risk of dropping out.
So an increased focus on retention is welcome, and necessary. But there’s a dangerous side to it too, and this is where I think a more pessimistic scenario might play out.
NUS’s work exploring the promotion of the National Student Survey has shown the lengths that institutions will go to in order to ensure high ratings and response rates. Prizes for filling it in this year run from £1000 cash and VIP graduation packages to donations to student charities and even the university’s own hardship fund. Talk about robbing Peter to pay Paul…
But we’re also seeing institutions put pressure on students to fill in the survey positively, less they reap the consequences of their own dissatisfaction. This includes regular reminders that the survey impacts on league tables, the university’s reputation, and ultimately the value of students’ own degrees.
If universities are willing to game the metrics on students’ experiences, what’s the possibility that they take a similarly underhand approach to retention?
A recent scandal in the US illustrates where we could end up. The President of Mount St Mary’s University asked staff to provide lists of students most likely to drop out of their courses. After sending round a survey to new students to “support their orientation”, the President intended to use the results to remove up to twenty five students by the end of September, to boost the colleges retention rate by 5%.
“This is hard for you because you think of the students as cuddly bunnies,” he told colleagues. “But you can’t. You just have to drown the bunnies … put a glock to their heads.”
This, the university reported, was their ‘Retention Plan’!
It is easy to write this off as an isolated incident. But in a sector under more pressure than ever to achieve, with less and less resource available for considered, evidence-based interventions, and ever tighter timescales in which to achieve, the kind of long-term work that might reap truly rewarding results is pushed aside for quick fix solutions. I do not think it is alarmist to be concerned about similar initiatives occurring here in the UK.
Research undertaken by the Institute for Fiscal Studies showed that, in general, students from the most disadvantaged backgrounds were 8.4 percentage points more likely to drop out of university within two years of starting their course, compared with those from the most advantaged homes. Although this difference dropped when taking previous achievement into account, it still remains when students with similar achievement undertake exactly the same degree course at the same institution. Then, undergraduates from the 20% most disadvantaged backgrounds are still 3.4 percentage points more likely to drop out of university than those from the 20% most advantaged homes.
So the pervasive issue is class, but it is compounded by other categories of disadvantage too. The What Works? study shows that its not as easy as looking at pre-entry grades to determine who might run into difficulties. NUS’ own research has shown that mental and physical health difficulties, financial hardship and a sense of disengagement from your academic environment are all reasons why students have considered dropping out of their studies.
At what point does the under pressure VC, from an institution with a healthy application rate, start to look at the quick fixes for their retention problems? Profiling students pre-entry is nothing new. Institutions do it to offer differential grades on entry, access schemes for local students from disadvantaged backgrounds and specialist open days.
But there is a very real possibility that we will start to see institutions using this data to narrow their offer pool instead of support peer to peer engagement, to shut people out instead of welcome them in.
So what do we do? Well we must do what we’ve always done as the part of the sector that champions access. Researchers, must keep producing the evidence on what works, and presenting that in accessible ways. As NUS and students’ unions, we’ll make use of this evidence, and champion your research, fighting to put evidence-based retention on the table. And we must push back on unscrupulous initiatives incentivised by TEF, and stand up for a diverse, inclusive education system, with access at its heart.
This article is an edited version of Sorana’s remarks to the Wonkhe and UPP Foundation policy forum on 23rd March: The student journey – does UK HE have a retention problem?