What’s up with low student withdrawals?

New data from the Student Loans Company suggests a trend towards later in-year withdrawals, but numbers leaving their course remain similar to previous years.

David Kernohan is Deputy Editor of Wonkhe

We don’t usually get in year data from the SLC, but it is good that we get an early look this year as it helps put a perspective on the more apocalyptic narratives. This follows previous ad hoc releases in December and February, and offers a genuinely unprecedented opportunity to look at non-continuation by term.

By 31 May in 2018-19, 26,965 full- or part-time fee paying UG students (so UK outside Scotland and EU domiciled students) had left their course as reported to SLC) For the same date in 2019-20 the figure was 25,522, and in 2020-21 25,669. This is against a background of rising numbers of applications and acceptances over the same years, and a continued growth in the 18-year old entry rate – despite demographic pressures. Though numbers of withdrawals remain similar, the number of students has grown massively – meaning that we’ve seen a proportional decrease.

If you assume most withdrawals happen in the first year we can see a likely cohort withdrawal rate of 5.9 per cent in 2018-19, 5.5 per cent in 19-20, and 5.3 per cent in 20-21.

In other words higher education remains astonishingly popular, and providers are getting much better at retaining the students they recruit. We need to measure this positivity a little by noting that opportunities for young people to do literally anything else – work, travel, perform – have been pretty dismal in 2020-21, though it is still fair to say that the spectre of bored and depressed students leaving in droves has been wide of the mark.

SLC does caveat heavily, and it is worth going through the alternate explanations:

  • It has been an administratively chaotic year, and withdrawal notifications may not be routinely made as quickly as SLC might like. The mitigation here is that the dates used as cut off points are very slightly after each deadline for the three chunks of fee eligibility – generally a focal point for making sure these are correctly processed to avoid the pain of clawbacks.
  • Likewise, if there’s been any errors in provider notification, the corrected errors have not been included
  • There are multiple ways of notifying that a student is not on a course – withdrawal is the common one, but these figures don’t include “suspended”, “never attended”, or – indeed – “deceased” notifications.

Diving deeper, we get a glimpse of term-by-term patterns – alas, not the raw numbers but the percentage changes for each of the three deadlines.

Withdrawal in term three is slightly up on last year (1 per cent in England, 3 per cent in Wales) – one per cent higher in total. But this should be balanced against a 14 per cent decrease in withdrawals comparing February to February, and an 11 per cent decrease comparing November to November

Comparing last year to the year before, withdrawal rates were down in May 2020 – suggesting that the pandemic didn’t lead to immediate withdrawals.




One response to “What’s up with low student withdrawals?

  1. Thank you for this article – It would be interesting to further analyse this data with HE progression data mid-course e.g. Year 1 to Year 2. Sometimes students may wait until they have ‘failed’ the course to leave the course but still receive a full year of tuition fees.

    It would also be interesting to see the number of students suspending or repeating their studies as there appears to be little research out there, but there can be further risks to this demographic of students with their progression.

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