How government and universities can work together to avoid a retention crisis

It's bad news for everyone if students flee universities this year but there's a great deal more government and universities can do if they work together. Natalie Day proposes a three-point plan.

Wonkhe recently published concerning research about how some students are feeling frustrated and lonely, and questioning whether university is really for them.

So while institutions are rightly focused on finding ways to reassure students at every possible point – through pastoral care, teaching support, and continuous communications to try and minimise the prospect of them not returning, the question remains – will this be enough?

While retention might be close to the top of most vice-chancellors’ worry lists, it is not necessarily heading the long list of policy challenges that government is thinking about as they navigate the day-to-day consequences of Covid-19. We need to make policymakers aware of how much is at stake in avoiding a retention crisis. The reality is that increased numbers of students dropping out of universities into a painfully difficult labour market will have significant consequences for them as individuals, and for society at large. Increased attrition will result in wasted potential, wasted learning and wasted opportunity, for which we will all pay a steep price.

Government and universities should join forces now to avoid a retention crisis, and three principles need to shape our joint approach:

  1. A stronger sense of common purpose and shared understanding of these challenges between government and universities
  2. A commitment to consistency and clarity on both sides; and,
  3. A new mode of working together to cope with uncertainty.

Common purpose and shared problems

This is an overarching point, but universities need to be much more confident and articulate as to why our students are vital to the UK’s post-pandemic need for an advanced, highly-skilled economy. We need to demonstrate that it is imperative for us to work with government on what we perceive to be shared problems, whether on retention, or campus infection rates – so we can work more effectively together to solve them.

Compare the language, tone and overall message of how business minister Alok Sharma addresses the CBI, to Michelle Donelan’s recent communications to universities. The former supportive and collaborative; the latter brusque and didactic. So we need to pivot, and quickly, to demonstrate our potential contribution to building back better post-Covid.

In recent weeks, it hasn’t often felt like the government understands the scale and speed of the challenges we are facing. Perhaps this reflects the broader and longstanding disconnect between the government’s view of universities in their role as drivers of research and innovation, and as educators and teachers. These are of course interconnected and interdependent, and policy needs to recognise this – even in the midst of a crisis.

The reality is that we see our students not as customers, but as our future lawyers, nurses, paramedics, social workers, teachers, managers and scientists. We are keenly aware that their learning now is not simply a matter of their own academic journey, but something which we as a society have invested in, and will one day benefit from. We need to be united in our public messaging as to why retention matters – not just for individual students, but for us all.

A commitment to consistency and clarity

The message from the government as we entered the second lockdown was to stay home, stay home, stay home. Yet at the same time, the universities minister told us as a sector to carry on as before – without properly acknowledging the challenges that represents.

Too many DfE pronouncements seem to assume that university students are a homogenous bunch. But they don’t all live in Oxbridge-style colleges, able to skip between halls and lectures at five minutes notice. And now the whole sector has been told to go online by early December.

We need to help the government to recognise the richness and diversity of the sector, and the different impacts of inconsistent approaches. Across the country, half of all students travel daily to their university. At Sheffield Hallam,15,000 of our 31,000 students commute in and out each day. With the move to more online and a reduced face-to-face timetable, you can understand why some students might not be keen to travel in, often on public transport, during a lockdown. And why our staff – academic, professional and support – who are all required to run an effective campus might also be apprehensive when almost everyone is being asked to stay home because of rising infections.

The long delay in issuing guidance about Christmas has also caused uncertainty, undermining efforts to reassure students who might be reconsidering their future at university.

If government wants to help us to effectively manage this crisis, to ensure high rates of retention, they need to be as consistent as possible. Universities, in turn, need to be much clearer about what our challenges are, how they differ across various types of institutions and students, what any changes will mean in practice, and how realistic they are. A more open and constructive dialogue, still operating at pace, is required.

Coping with uncertainty

No-one knows what other curveballs Covid-19 might throw at us over the coming weeks and months. False certainties are deeply unhelpful.

When we look towards the return of students to campus post-Christmas, we need to absorb the lessons from September. We need routine asymptomatic testing on campus in place by early January – to give certainty and confidence to students, staff, and importantly to communities. Students cannot again be made the scapegoats, taking unfair blame for rising infections. We need support for staggered return schedules. We need recognition of the extraordinary efforts and innovations that are helping to deliver a digital campus experience and sense of belonging that extends far beyond lectures-by-Zoom.

Finally, if we are to avoid a retention crisis, we need an unflinching, unequivocal and united message from institutions, employers and government that university skills are important and valued. And that we all support students, who need to return to university because our future depends upon their knowledge and skills.

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