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Why a fresh approach is needed for university drop-out rates

  • 25 April 2024

The Higher Education Policy Institute has published a new paper on student non-continuation rates.

‘Dropouts or stopouts or comebackers or potential completers?’: Non-continuation of students in the UK (HEPI Policy Note 53) by HEPI Director, Nick Hillman, finds:

  • the UK has had the lowest drop-out rate among developed countries, with Ireland in second place;
  • the UK’s strong performance arises in part from the historic levels of academic selection at the point of entry to higher education as well as the relatively short length of undergraduate degrees, which provides less scope for life events to intervene and disrupt study;
  • non-continuation fell somewhat during the worst of COVID and rose immediately afterwards while the latest (experimental) data suggest it is now falling again, though it has yet to fall back to pre-COVID levels;
  • the likelihood of dropping out varies enormously depending on a student’s characteristics, the course and institution studied and the original learning goal – those more likely to drop out include mature students, male students, Black students, students previously entitled to Free School Meals and disabled students;
  • the factors affecting drop-out rates make the Government’s demand that ‘we should have the same high expectations for all students, regardless of background or circumstances’ unfeasible – especially in a constrained funding environment;
  • politicians tend to focus on non-continuation as it is one way to gain traction over autonomous universities without directly demanding changes to admissions or curricula, so a number of recent policy initiatives – including Access and Participation Plans, the Teaching Excellence Framework and the B3 Registration Condition – incorporate drop-out rates;
  • if the Government’s flagship higher education policy, the Lifelong Learning Entitlement, is to be a success, there will need to be a new approach to non-continuation, as the LLE is based on the idea that people should be encouraged to access higher education in small chunks throughout their adult lives.

The report includes the following policy recommendations for reducing non-continuation further:

  1. providing better information for applicants so that there is a better match between the student experience and prior expectations;
  2. putting more focus on students’ living costs, reversing the recent declines in the real value of maintenance support;
  3. making clever use of big data, enabling the provision of more personalised support for at-risk students;
  4. responding at an institutional level both to the existing evidence base on non-continuation and to bespoke information gathered through structured exit interviews of students who depart before their course of study ends; and
  5. making greater use of staging qualifications, making it easier for students who do not complete their whole original target qualification to obtain some academic credits, which can then be used in the labour market or upon returning to study.

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

‘Non-continuation rates or, more colloquially, drop-out rates are endlessly discussed but poorly understood. It is easy to forget the UK record on getting students through to graduation is very good indeed when compared to other countries. Indeed, given the drop-out rate at some institutions is under 1 per cent, there may be instances where individual students are sticking with a particular path when it might be better for them to change course.

‘Drop-out rates are affected by multiple factors, such as institution type, the personal characteristics of learners and the chosen route. While ministers say they favour low drop-out rates, the degree apprenticeships they are pushing heavily have notably high drop-out rates.

‘Drop-out rates also bounce up and down with the wider environment. They fell during the worst of COVID, rose immediately afterwards and now appear to be falling once more. The Department for Education have sometimes regarded contextualising non-continuation data as excusing failure but this is too simplistic.

‘Where high drop-out rates exist, they need to be tackled via better information for applicants, improved living-cost support for students and better use of big data by institutions. We also recommend structured exit interviews for those who do leave as well as staging qualifications within higher level courses, as these can make it easier to return to learning after dropping out.

‘Most critically, if the Westminster Government’s flagship higher education policy, the Lifelong Learning Entitlement, is to succeed, there has to be an entirely new approach to dropping out, at least in some areas, as the whole point of the LLE is to encourage people to dip in and out of learning throughout their working lives.’

The report itself concludes with the words:

‘The UK’s problem is not high drop-out rates across the entire higher education sector. It is the relatively low attendance rate in the compulsory stage of education since the pandemic lessened, insufficient support for sub-degree provision, high drop-out rates among a minority of institutions, courses and students (including degree apprenticeships) and people being unable to make the most of their student experience because they have not got enough money and have to undertake a high number of hours of paid work – even during term time when their studies should be their main priority.’

Note for Editors

HEPI was established in 2002 to influence the higher education debate with evidence. We are UK-wide, independent and non-partisan. We are funded by organisations and higher education institutions that wish to support vibrant policy discussions, as well as through our own events. HEPI is a company limited by guarantee and a registered charity.

1 comment

  1. Dr Paul Smith says:

    There is a lot to like in this report – in particular, the “conundrum” in the last section. If I can develop this a bit more, this is a conundrum only for the state and those who seek to find metricised “performance indicators”. Having one of these indicators removed, alongside the potential for more flexibility for, and less pressure on students, could be a win-win situation for HEIs, as long as they can adapt flexibly themselves. It would involve something of a sea-change in perspective, and no doubt there will be unintended consequences in terms of student mobility, but I’ve long been a proponent of this flexible approach.

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