Does UK HE have a retention problem?

In the second of a series of events hosted jointly by Wonkhe and UPP Foundation, an expert panel considered the knotty retention in higher education on 23 March at King’s College London.

The panel, chaired by UPP Foundation’s Richard Brabner, was:

  • Alex Proudfoot, Chief Executive at Independent HE
  • Ross Renton, Pro-Vice Chancellor Students at the University of Worcester
  • Liz Thomas, independent researcher, author of What Works
  • Sorana Vieru, Vice President of Higher Education at the National Union of Students

While the UK performs well on retention against its OECD counterparts, there are still challenges facing institutions, particularly non-continuation for disadvantaged student groups. HESA recently published the latest data on retention which showed disparity in performance across institutions, including ten higher education institutions with drop-out rates above 12% for young students and a significantly worse picture for mature learners. An interesting contrast was made with other higher education systems in which attrition is expected, and perhaps considered a marker of quality, but in the UK – with competitive admissions rather than a comprehensive approach (at least for now) – there is an obligation on the part of institutions to help students succeed.

The debate considered the role of learning and teaching in retention: there was a call for student engagement and meaningful inclusion to support students on their programmes, themes central to Liz Thomas’ What Works project conclusions. There was also encouragement to seek ways of reducing – or eliminating – a stigma around non-completion. Sub-degree ‘exit awards’ were one suggestion of how to make the learning meaningful, as well as increasing options for credit accumulation and transfer to help students to hop-on, hop-off a learning journey throughout their lives.

The position of the National Union of Students, which has promoted a boycott of the Teaching Excellence Framework, is that the metrics focus – which include measures of student retention – may lead institutions to gaming the system. Sorana Vieru drew attention to an alarming report from the US in which a College President invited colleagues to identifying students to remove from cohort to boost overall retention, using the phrase “drown the bunnies.” We have published her full remarks here

The student makeup in alternative providers differs from the publicly-funded sector; Alex Proudfoot argued that retention for those institutions should therefore be considered in the context of high proportions of BME and mature students. He gave examples from his member organisations of industry-focused programmes which aim to provide the necessary support, particularly for less advantaged learners. And he pointed to the policy announcement on support for accelerated degrees as a way in which APs might further support widening participation to HE. HESA recently released data on retention for APs.

Personalisation was the theme of Ross Renton’s contribution which drew on his personal experience as a student in Glasgow being told in his first lecture to “look at those to your left and right, only one of you will pass this course.” He spoke of interventions at the Universities of Hertfordshire and Worcester where individual interventions – which he noted were expensive to deliver – from before students arrive on campus had had significant beneficial impacts. Improved personal tutoring, peer mentoring and trips were part of a package of measures which scaffolded students in ways which met their individual needs. Ross emphasised the importance of the “personalised approach” to effective student support. 

On balance, while the panellists recognised the challenge of retention, there was the prospect of a more positive future in this area. There is more that should be done, on mental health support, on information, advice and guidance, on supporting staff to nurture student retention, on appropriate use of learning analytics. But there are also good examples to draw on, and reasons to optimistic as work is done to understand – and respond to – students’ complex lives.

Save the date: the next instalment of the Wonkhe/UPP Foundation Policy Forum series will take place on 14th June 2017 at King’s College London. Further details will be announced in the Monday Morning HE Briefing.

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