We need to talk about non-continuation and interruption

I seem to write a version of this article every year - but particularly here in 2022 as we enter an autumn set to be dominated by a cost of living crisis, I think we need to think carefully about interruption and drop-out.

Jim is an Associate Editor at Wonkhe

There’s a pervasive myth that both before enrolling on a programme, and before re-enrolling on a programme, students are able to weigh up the realities of the year ahead and, if they choose to, decide to pause or not continue – and therefore avoid further costs and/or debt.

I say myth because from a financial point of view, the idea that no student should be deterred from higher education on the basis of the costs is now obviously faulty – a problem exacerbated by the sector’s seeming refusal to warn students about the realities that are about to be facing them.

I say it also because the decision on whether to (re-)enrol, pause or “drop out” is often hard to untangle from family pressures, accommodation rental contracts that tie students for a year, sunk costs, and the visceral negativity of the regs and cultural framing of doing anything other than “hanging on in there”.

But here’s the thing. It’s a decent bet that plenty of students aren’t going to be able to afford to carry on this year, or get through the year. The problem is that particularly in England, the incentives aren’t so much about supporting them as they are trapping them.

Take “fee liability” points, for example – the deadlines at which you incur a responsibility to pay for your tuition and add to the debt you’ve taken out – using up a year’s entitlement in the process.

I can make an argument that we should be putting those fee liability dates in bright neon lights, and that in every case they should be as late as possible to give students a chance to realise – not as early as legally allowed, as many are now. But the incentives don’t point in that direction.

We should also think carefully about the interaction between those liability points and the dates of energy price cap announcements/implementation and likely dates of budgets/help. The extent to which governments will help is not clear today – so the extent to which a student might be relied upon to make a sound judgement about their ability to afford to participate today is a problem too.

As I note, plenty of students are already trapped in housing rental contracts. If they have to drop out to work full time to pay the rent, I can argue that we shouldn’t compound that with extra debt and unnecessary academic regs hassle.

We should also, arguably, be ramping up the ease/ability for students to switch to part time if that helps them find the money to stay on.

As for universities intending to retain deposits from students who never take up their place because of the emergent cost of living realities, I think you can guess what I think about that.

What all of this highlights is that in England, the Office for Students tends to frame drop out as a university’s fault – in other words it is a university’s responsibility to ensure a student can complete a course to avoid them both wasting their time, and their and taxpayers’ money.

In fact, the extent to which this should be a university’s responsibility has been carefully thought about and calibrated over a couple of years’ consultations on B3.

I have more sympathy with the concept than many. But determining whether a student can make it academically is different to financially – and the situation has changed.

The implication is that the sector should be assessing whether a student’s financial situation and likely help from government will mean they are likely to succeed. I just don’t think that’s realistic, viable or fair.

Even if there’s a bursary and scholarship scheme, if that’s not enough to provide the money a student needs in the year ahead, is the duty on the provider to facilitate entry in the name of access, or deny it in the name of fairness?

In other words, isn’t this the kind of crisis where there really is a real trade off between access and “outcomes”?

Ultimately, if a student drops out for financial reasons, we first need a decent way to capture why that is developed nationally. I’m not the first to suggest that the SLC ought to be caused to collect that data – and this coming year, we really do need to know.

But more importantly, if it is for financial reasons, we shouldn’t be blaming the provider if OfS signed off on their APP and they did all they said they’d do in that APP. Making that clear now really matters – lest every moving part in the sector does all it can to make students feel absolutely rotten about what might for them be a sensible, beneficial and rational pause or exit.

As OfS says on the subject, when a student embarks on a higher education course, it has the potential to be a life transforming event – an enriching academic experience that paves the way for a rewarding and a fulfilling life. Students pay a significant price for these opportunities, through their time and effort, as well as in financial terms.

But if the external circumstances change – leaving students on low incomes unable to meaningfully participate and succeed for the time being – making a student feel trapped and not able to pause or exit will see them paying a “significant price” in a different way altogether.

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