Report suggests institutions that prioritise student success are likely to have higher retention rates

New research from the Social Market Foundation (SMF) has found that no significant progress is being made on improving retention rates in higher education in England – but that institutions which are making a success of their ‘student experience,’ with more satisfied students, are likely to have higher rates of course completion.

The report Staying the course, supported by Hobsons, finds that retention rates have barely moved since 2009/10, and that the rates for students from the most disadvantaged backgrounds are still stubbornly lower than for others. Just over 8% of students from low participation areas were not continuing in higher education in 2014/15, as opposed to just over 6% in other areas. The report shows that there is a group of twenty institutions where around one in ten students are not continuing in higher education after one year.

The report also highlights the rising focus on ‘student success’ in higher education policy – with the new Teaching Excellence Framework (TEF) including measures for it.  The TEF will see an increased focus on improving retention rates in higher education. The SMF’s research shows that institutions where students were more satisfied tended to have higher retention rates, as did those institutions prioritising student success.

The report also shows that, while it’s typically assumed institutions that are doing more to widen participation are not likely to see higher completion rates as a result, there is a large group of universities that are making progress on both. Institutions including City, St Mary’s, Aston, Bishop Grosseteste, Lincoln and Kingston universities have among the highest retention rates of all institutions for the most disadvantaged students, revealing no correlation between improving widening participation and worsening continuation rates.

Key findings from Staying the course:

  • There is a group of twenty institutions where around one in ten students are not continuing in higher education after one year – though retention rates in many institutions are exceptionally high.
  • Institutions where students were more satisfied tended to have higher retention rates, and institutions that prioritise student success were also likely to see higher rates of completion.
  • There is no correlation between increased widening participation and worsening continuation rates.
  • Retention rates for students from the most disadvantaged backgrounds are still stubbornly lower than for others. Just over 8% of students from low participation areas did not continue in higher education in 2014/15, as opposed to just over 6% in other areas.
  • While non-continuation rates are higher among the most disadvantaged students, some institutions are successful in keeping these low as well. Many of these institutions are selective, so they may have enrolled the most qualified and motivated students from disadvantaged backgrounds.
  • Yet there are institutions with different profiles that are making a success of the student experience too. Institutions including City University London, St Mary’s Twickenham, Aston, Bishop Grosseteste, Lincoln and Kingston have among the highest retention rates of all institutions for the most disadvantaged students.
  • There are close to 50 institutions that are either making no progress or going backwards on continuation rates.
  • Most of the institutions that are making progress on continuation rates demonstrate modest progress. There are very few institutions that have made radical improvements.

The author of Staying the course, SMF director Emran Mian said:

“Every student who does not continue in higher education means a loss of potential, a bad experience for that student and poor value for the taxpayer, as the investment in tuition costs is likely to have a low return.

“As the Government’s White Paper puts it, ‘even the present position on retention represents thousands of life opportunities wasted, of young dreams unfulfilled’.

“This research suggests a link between an institution’s students’ satisfaction and its drop-out rates.  Institutions which prioritise student success are likely to see lower rates of non-continuation.

“Our research also suggests that institutions cannot claim that making progress on widening participation has impaired their performance on increasing retention rates.

“Policymakers, students and taxpayers expect institutions to make progress on both fronts.

“Government should encourage higher education institutions to focus on improving student success.”

Jeremy Cooper, Managing Director at Hobsons, said:

“Clearly we know that when students are happy and succeeding at university they are more likely to complete their study.  Despite relatively low student drop-out there is a persistent minority that are falling through the gaps.  As we continue to widen access we have to focus on how we make progress supporting student success and give all students the targeted support they need.”

-ENDS-

Notes to editors:

A copy of the new report, Staying the course, is available on the SMF website. The report has been supported by Hobsons, though the SMF is responsible for the analysis and any conclusions drawn from it.

For further details about the report and to request interviews with the report author SMF Director Emran Mian, please contact David Mills via 020 7222 7060.

For interviews with Jeremy Cooper, Managing Director at Hobsons, please contact Patty Mason via patty.mason@hobsons.com.

About the Social Market Foundation:
The Social Market Foundation (SMF) is a non-partisan think tank. We believe that fair markets, complemented by open public services, increase prosperity and help people to live well. We conduct research and run events looking at a wide range of economic and social policy areas, focusing on economic prosperity, public services and consumer markets. The SMF is resolutely independent, and the range of backgrounds and opinions among our staff, trustees and advisory board reflects this.

About Hobsons:
Hobsons helps students identify their strengths, explore careers, create academic plans, match to best-fit educational opportunities, and reach their education and life goals. Through our solutions, we enable thousands of educational institutions to improve university, college and career planning, admissions and enrolment management, and student success and advising for millions of students around the globe. Hobsons works with more than 12,000 schools, colleges, and universities and supports more than 13 million students.

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