This article is more than 1 year old

We don’t know what we don’t know

Michelle Morgan argues that we need a better understanding of student drop-outs if we are to retain students through the cost of living crisis.
This article is more than 1 year old

Michelle Morgan is Dean of Students at the University of East London. 

A wealth of longstanding research highlighted the disadvantages different groups of students faced even before the cost of living crisis. Recent research shows how this disparity is now intensified.

The recent MillionPlus survey highlighted that black and mature students are most at-risk for immediate financial hardship. Those from lower socio-economic backgrounds and students living at home or commuting to campus are also more likely to be at risk.

And in our research at the University of East London (UEL), we found financial concerns related to accommodation, living, and travel costs are widespread among all new and returning undergraduate and postgraduate students but especially returning ones with the lived experience of studying at university.

The Office for Students also recently found that concerns around affordability were widespread in the student body but also had differential impacts on different groups of students.

Last month, Paul Blomfield launched an all-party parliamentary group inquiry seeking evidence into the impact of the cost of living crisis on students. The inquiry seeks to understand the varying impact of the crisis on different groups of students – in particular, mature, commuter, part-time, disabled, and international students, and those from a low socio-economic background. This is a start to what has otherwise been negligible thought and support from the government on the cost of living impact on students.


Universities, of course, will be implementing pragmatic ways to support students – and different demographics of students – and their progression through their studies, just as they did during the pandemic.

These can include automatic extensions for some assessed work and allowing a module fail to be carried forward from one year to the next, which may help immediately with progression figures. Still, it can also push withdrawals and intermissions up to the next year of study.

But to create effective strategies and policies, we need accurate data on the immediate impact of the cost of living crisis on the study journey of the individual student – for different groups of students and also for institutions.

This is more than just providing support to the students. This is also to ensure that the expected increase in withdrawals and intermissions – as a direct result of the cost of living crisis – at particular institutions that have more disadvantaged students cannot be used by the government to attack – or worse, dispose of – courses and providers they deem are of “poor value”.

This will not support the levelling up agenda the government says it is keen to pursue.


Every institution collects and records reasons for intermission, change in study mode, and withdrawal with different levels of detail. But the categories universities have to complete in their HESA returns are broad and basic. Especially as a student’s decision to stop studying is often complex with no single cause.

It is also hard to accurately pinpoint when the student stopped attending because of varying methods of recording attendance, sickness, and vacation periods. Yet this is a key piece of information that the Student Loan Company require to calculate what a student owes and arrange repayments.

Covid-19 exacerbated this process, and the cost of living crisis will exacerbate it more. We must establish a consistent sector-wide method of recording reasons for student intermission and withdrawal, so we have comparative data across all levels of study and student characteristics. This will need to inform policy.

Look at the loan book!

One approach which could be quickly implemented and independent – which I called for during the pandemic – is for the Student Loan Company to undertake such data-gathering activity on withdrawals so we can understand the impact in real-time.

This would involve a deeper dive into the reasons for intermission or withdrawal. And while it will only collect data from students entitled to undergraduate and postgraduate loans, the company is ideally placed to collect this information as students need to engage with them to close the loan.

Universities and Students’ Unions are working hard to provide for students from hard-hit demographics and the student body in general, as the cost of living impacts the higher education sector. But we need to understand the bigger picture, where patterns are emerging, who is in the most hardship – and why – so we can be informed, efficient, and targeted in our support.

2 responses to “We don’t know what we don’t know

  1. Is it possible that some students drop out because they feel unable to cope, perhaps because they were awarded the wrong A level grade – a grade which was higher than they truly merit?

    Ofqual’s Chief Regulator is on record as admitting that GCSE, AS and A level grades are “reliable to one grade either way” – which masks the deeper truth that about 1 grade in every 4 is wrong (, with wide variations by subject (4 in every 100 wrong in Maths, 35 in every 100 in Geography, 44 in every 100 wrong in History).

    Grades are wrong both ways, so about 1 grade in 8 is too high. How many students suffer stress as a result of entering a programme for which they are not adequately qualified?

    1. “How many students suffer stress as a result of entering a programme for which they are not adequately qualified?” Skewing of results to favour minorities outcomes was a problem in Secondary education when I was a school governor, with active teacher bias and management looking to ‘give the right impression’. Such pupils went on to further education with similar expectations, which some colleges felt they had to continue, based on the false expectation the schools had created and the government blindly expected to continue. Universities then ended up with ‘apparently’ qualified students who couldn’t cope in reality. The whole game being biased from pre-school onwards, it’s Universities who end up getting blamed.

      For clarity, and my biases, I’m mixed Afro-Caribbean/White Irish and overcoming the racism of low expectations has been difficult at times, false exaggerated expectations are as damaging to the individual too.

Leave a Reply