The forthcoming Teaching Excellence Framework will focus the attention of English universities on retention and student satisfaction. Hobsons recently supported the Social Market Foundation with their research Staying the Course which looked in more detail at the rising focus on student success in higher education.

The phrase 'dropping out' has negative connotations. In a way, that's unfair. It is okay to change one's mind about a decision, even — perhaps, especially — a major one. If you're unhappy about a choice, whether a job, a relationship, or a higher education course, it's probably better to make the break sooner rather than later.

There will always be students who feel they made the wrong decision by choosing a certain course, or an institution, or even choosing to go to university at all. The Guardian, expanding upon our report about university retention rates, quotes one business studies student who dropped out of university after calculating the cost of each contact hour. Several other students give their reasons for leaving courses early in the comments section below the article.

Yet, every student who does not continue in higher education does represent, to some degree, a loss of potential; that student did not have the experience they hoped to have. More prosaically, non-continuation also means poor value for the taxpayer, as the investment in tuition costs is likely to have a lower return than if they had completed their course.

England does not have a bad story to tell on non-continuation, by international standards. A report published by HEFCE in 2015 notes, for example, that in the US only 65% of students graduate within 6 years; and that proportion drops to 33% for associate degrees in community colleges.

But non-continuation rates haven't moved in the last five years, and there are very few institutions that have made radical improvements in reducing them. Our research found that most of the institutions making progress on continuation rates demonstrate modest advancements.  Close to 50 institutions are either making no progress or going backwards on continuation rates.

Rates for students from the most disadvantaged backgrounds are still stubbornly lower than other pupils. Just over 8% of students from low participation areas were not continuing in higher education in the 2014-15 academic year, as opposed to just over 6% of students in other areas. There is a group of 20 institutions where around one in ten students are not continuing in higher education after one year.

What's to be done? Our report offers one route for institutions keen to make progress on this metric, while removing a potential excuse for those who are failing to do so.

We looked at student satisfaction, as measured in the National Student Survey, as a way of gauging student success and whether non-continuation rates are correlated to student satisfaction. Our analysis suggests that higher student satisfaction in general is correlated to lower non-continuation rates.

But to find out what a strategy to improve non-continuation rates looks like in practice, we interviewed senior managers at a range of institutions.Very few managers were willing to speak to us on the record about their strategies for improving student success. We expect this may be because of the imminent introduction of the Teaching Excellence Framework (TEF). Nevertheless, we obtained two case studies from very different institutions: Trinity Laban Conservatoire of Music and Dance and University of Salford. Both have a strong focus on student success and support, which other institutions might wish to study further. The new TEF, with its measures for student success and increased focus on improving retention rates in higher education, could provide an impetus for them to do so.

Our research also found no link between increased widening participation and worsening continuation rates. But while non-continuation rates are higher among the most disadvantaged students, some institutions are successful in keeping these low as well.

This can't just be because many of those institutions are selective, and have enrolled the most qualified and motivated students from disadvantaged backgrounds. There are several institutions with different profiles which are making a success of the student experience. 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. Someone is doing something right in these institutions.

The message from our research seems clear: 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 – widening participation, while doing their best to ensure that their students succeed, and are satisfied with the courses and the experience of university life. We hope our work goes some way to helping them to achieve those twin goals.

To learn more about our research, Staying the Course, read our report.


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