Are students dropping out because universities admitted them to courses they can’t do?

Level 3 results week (or “A Level results week” as the media prefers to frame it) is one of the few times in the year when the Secretary of State for Education deigns to involve themselves in higher education policy.

Jim is an Associate Editor at Wonkhe

So it’s always interesting to look at the “lines to take” emanating from 20 Great Smith St on this pre-weekend to get a sense of how the department views the sector at the top line.

And this year’s iteration is as depressing as it gets.

Today the Sunday Times splashes with “Tougher A-level grades ‘vital’ as unprepared students quit university”, standfirsting with the idea that “dropout rates for some courses [are] at almost 30%”, and asking if “generous school exam results during Covid left teenagers unable to cope at higher level?”

It’s hooked around an op-ed from Gillian Keegan, who says that “teenagers” receiving their A-level results “must brace themselves for lower grades” because universities “need to be able to properly distinguish between candidates.”

To accompany the piece, a “source” has a go at driving the point home:

Data shows that close to 30 per cent of young people are dropping out of [some] university courses in the two years of the pandemic grading. It is not in young people’s interests to have grading arrangements that do not appropriately support their progression.

When grades are not an accurate reflection of “what students know and can do”, they don’t “help their students with their next steps”, the “source” also insists.

We might reasonably ask who managed to examnishambles the grading to start with, only to then demand that universities honour all of the offers they’d made on the basis of predicted grades.

We might also ask whether it’s admitting students to academically unsuitable courses that’s causing drop outs, or the myriad challenges that the 2020 and 2021 entry cohorts had to face in their first couple of years, or the staggering failure to offer financial support even approaching increases in inflation.

But doing all of that would involve accepting the narrative in both the Keegan piece and the Times covering story that drop out is up following the two years of the pandemic grading.

An interactive table in The Times examines non-continuation rates (that’s getting to year two) for all taught first degree students entering courses between the 2017/18 and 2020/21 academic years – lumping in 2020 pandemic starters with starters from three previous years – and explicitly not covering 2021 or 2022 starters.

A number of providers in its top ten seem to have shown an improvement on previous years rather than a collapse, and similarly a number seem to be showing improvements in completion too.

The piece also says that across the country “a record 11 per cent of full-time undergraduates” who started their degree courses in 2020-21 dropped out, ignoring how high the level was before OfS started publishing dashboards, and says “35 per cent of part-time students who started their degree courses in 2020-21 dropped out”, a stat I can’t find in any of OfS’ dashboards at all.

Keegan concludes by playing to the Times’ “too many kids are going to uni” gallery with the line “I’m living proof that going straight from school to university isn’t the only way to get on”, touting her Liverpool John Moores degree apprenticeship as an alternative route.

As ever, she neither mentions that demand massively outstrips supply, that the number of starts is tiny (about 16k L4+ apprenticeships in England compared to over 400k accepted degree entrants) and nor does she mention the “drop out” rate on degree apprenticeships – the “achievement rate” for which in 2021/22 was… 52.6 per cent.

One response to “Are students dropping out because universities admitted them to courses they can’t do?

  1. Universities have coped with under-qualified/over-graded students for years, perhaps without realising that.

    Referring to grades awarded in the 2010s, Ofqual’s Chief Regulator, Dame Glenys Stacey, has admitted that grades ‘are reliable to one grade either way’.

    So a student with a certificate showing BBB might have merited CCC. Or AAA. No one knows…,

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