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The UK's only independent think tank devoted to higher education.

New report warns that an excessive focus on university drop-out rates conflicts with other important priorities

  • 7 January 2021
  • By Nick Hillman

As students prepare for the new term, the Higher Education Policy Institute is publishing a report on non-continuation (or ‘drop-out’) rates.

A short guide to non-continuation in UK universities (HEPI Policy Note 28) by Nick Hillman, HEPI’s Director, looks at the scale of the problem, including showing that the UK has the lowest drop-out rate of any OECD country. It also considers which students are most at risk of not completing their courses and what changes could usefully be implemented to reduce non-continuation rates further.

Nick Hillman, the Director of HEPI and the author of the new report, said:

Dropping out from higher education is receiving more focus than ever before. Policymakers and regulators are increasingly judging institutions by their non-continuation rates. There is even a chance that funding could be closely linked to student retention in future.

It is good that people are discussing the issue in greater detail, not least because some students are more prone to dropping out than others – including Black students, part-time students, poorer students and commuter students. But it is nonetheless ridiculously easy to draw the wrong conclusions from the data.

Not all instances of dropping out are bad. There can be good reasons why a student cannot or should not continue with their course. Moreover, the UK already has the lowest drop-out rate in the developed world. Cack-handed attempts to reduce this further could actually disincentivise the recruitment of disadvantaged students. It could also disrupt the Government’s own well-received plans to promote more flexible lifelong learning options.

The best way to help students who are considering leaving but would benefit from completion is not heavy-handed regulation but instead to spread best practice. Among our proposals are targeted interventions for at-risk groups, measures to encourage a greater sense of belonging among students and non-stigmatising re-entry routes for those who leave but then want to start afresh. We also recommend exit interviews for early leavers, so that lessons can be learned when things do go wrong, and looking afresh at maintenance support to ensure students have enough income to live safe and stable lives.

Notes for Editors

The Higher Education Policy Institute was established in 2002 to help shape the higher education debate with evidence. It is the UK’s only independent think tank devoted to higher education. HEPI is a non-partisan charity funded by higher education institutions and other organisations that wish to see a vibrant policy debate.

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