We need more students to “drop out”

Today’s new Policy Note from HEPI on drop out is a good old-fashioned bit of knockabout contrarianism from its author Nick Hillman.

The pitch in “A short guide to non-continuation in UK universities is simple really, and is summed up on the second page:

International comparisons suggest the UK has the highest completion rates for students on bachelor’s degrees among comparable developed countries. At 72%, it is significantly above the average of 39%.

As such, why do we (with particular reference to ministers and regulators) worry about it so much – particularly when there’s lots of risk of unintended consequences? As Nick notes:

UK non-retention rates are so low relative to some other countries that policymakers have been known to suggest in private that they could represent a policy failure rather more than a success. One way of reading the data is to regard the UK as taking insufficient risks in terms of who it enrols in higher education. This is at one with the observation that, ‘The English style is to select and restrict entry, nurture carefully and expect high completion and low dropout rates.’

I think I’d go further. That’s because of data that Nick also notes in the paper from HEPI/Advance HE’s Student Academic Experience Survey, which has been consistently reporting that only about two-thirds of students would choose the same course at the same university if they had their time again (falling to 45 per cent for Black students).

We might well ask ourselves why it is that so many students appear to regret their choices but nevertheless stick it out. The danger is that we somehow pat ourselves on the back as a sector and suggest that our low drop-out rates are emblematic of the level of support we offer to students and the way that we carefully select them.

That may all be true. But it may also be related to the particular characteristics of our system. What the drop-out rate comparison doesn’t do is compare what students are dropping out from, and there’s three important things about our system that we should think about:

  • The dominance of the three year undergraduate honours degree (and its strict completion timetable) and the extent to which our culture promotes and assumes a “conveyor belt” from school to university (drop out = stigma);
  • The dominance of a “boarding school” model which promotes signing up for rental accommodation contracts months in advance that are almost impossible to escape (drop out = immediate waste);
  • The high perceived “sunk costs” of completing just one year of a degree and the way in which that “uses up” limits on entitlement to subsequent funding or periods of higher education (drop out = deferred waste).

That last one isn’t just perception, of course. A year’s maintenance and tuition fee debt isn’t nearly as progressively repaid as three year’s worth when one of the main mechanisms for progressivity is a thirty year write off.

Effectively, we have a system that is a bit like four channel television of the late 1980s on a Saturday night without a remote control. If you’re watching something fairly accessible at 5.30pm then the lack of viable alternatives, the lack of a remote control, the fact you’ve already paid your license fee and the stigma (and cost) of having a Sky dish on your house means you’ll still be watching a dull drama 10pm even if you’re hating it.

Where that all gets us to is needing a much better understanding of why students “drop out”, and it is baffling to me that we don’t try much much harder to work out why students go. Was it something the university said or did? Is the student happy or gutted about it, and why?

If OfS was serious about understanding the views and experiences of students using metrics like this in the process, it would have a plan to understand here rather than just a metric. Are we really not able to get some qualitative research capacity in place here?

But even that wouldn’t help that much. The question I’m even more interested in is less why students go, and more why students stick around if they’re unhappy. As such, I’m haunted by spending a few days buried in the qual of our non-continuation polling back in October – because as I noted at the time, while much of the feedback was about having a positive experience, or stoicism, or resilience, much of it read like students feeling that they have no choice:

I would rather die than go this far into debt and not get a degree out of this

I would be ashamed.

University is a privilege to me, and has always been something that I wanted to go into. Certain family circumstances made it difficult to confirm that I would be able to comfortably attend, however this has been achieved and I want to take full advantage of this.

I’m very determined to have my degree and work for my family.

It’s a luxury. I’m the first generation in my family to go to uni, so it’s very important to me. I’m now at my 4th uni.

Having paid international fees for 3 years now, it’ll be a waste to drop out of University now. Family is not that financially stable to afford another education.

I can’t disappoint my parents, family and friends.

Cos I’ve spent so much – tuition rent etc. On uni that dropping out is not an option. Plus I have expectations for myself and my family that I can’t/won’t let down.

Because it would be a waste of money.

They trap you in to paying so much you’re afraid to give up.

I don’t have a choice.

As much as I hate it here, I need my undergraduate degree in order to go to a post-grad US School so I will grin and bare it.

The phenomenon shouldn’t be mistaken as something exclusive to a period of pandemic, by the way. We found similar themes when we asked why people weren’t dropping out the previous year.

We shouldn’t get too carried away, of course. Some of the subject areas in some providers that OfS can probably see on its quality dashboard likely represent areas of concern, because it might well represent a lack of care over who is being recruited to courses and their suitability for them. But when its Competition and Registration Manager says things like:

It is not acceptable for providers to use the proportion of students from disadvantaged backgrounds they have as an excuse for poor outcomes.

…we do need to know whether those outcomes really are “poor” for them – and crucially whether the outcome is only “poor” in the context of the “stigma”, “immediate waste” and “deferred waste” contexts of our system as opposed to the actual education, skills development or employment outcomes the student hoped for.

So given the information we give to students (designed in some way to be predictive of the experience they’ll have and the outcomes they’ll get) is pretty faulty at the best of times, and given the international comparisons, I think I’m saying that policy makers should not rest until out drop out rates increase.

In fact, unless and until someone can remove the stigma and risks of leaving – and prove that it would have been in students’ interests to stay – it’s impossible to say that a low non-continuation rate is bad. For the time being, it’s just as easy to argue that low dropout is the ultimate student interests policy failure.

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