Government needs to step up in the student retention battle

The HE sector needs the resources to get better at spotting students at risk of falling behind or dropping out altogether, says John Couperthwaite

John Couperthwaite's avatar
9 Jul 2021
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Whitehall sign. The government needs to step up in the battle for student retention

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The UK higher education sector is on the edge of its proverbial seat awaiting the next government announcement on what going to university will look like for students in the coming academic year.  

While the nation’s Covid-19 vaccination programme is progressing at pace, universities are acutely aware that the pandemic is far from over.

So for now at least, many institutions are preparing to welcome more students back to in person teaching, while putting plans in place to continue delivering some learning online.

With a steady flow of media reports questioning the value of going to university next year, what impact will the continued mix of face-to-face and online learning have on student retention rates?  

On the face of it, UK universities have much less to worry about than institutions in many other parts of the world. As the Higher Education Policy Institute’s recent report on student retention highlights, non-continuation levels are generally very low here, despite the disruption caused by the pandemic.

Figures recently published by the Student Loans Company seem to back this up, suggesting that withdrawal notifications have fallen in the 2020/21 academic year compared with the previous two years.

But is this only part of a story yet to play out fully? 

Scratch the surface and you uncover what was already a growing trend of students not completing their courses prior to Covid, which caused concern in many universities.

Add to this the more than half (58 per cent) of full-time undergraduates recently polled by Hepi who indicated that their mental health had declined since the start of the pandemic and the picture blurs further.

How long will it be before ongoing disruptions to in-person teaching and the relative isolation of remote learning start to have a real impact on student numbers?

As we navigate our way through this crisis, new approaches are needed to push student well-being and engagement up the priority list for the government and to support the sector in preventing students at risk of withdrawing from higher education taking that step.

A fresh approach

It’s vital that student well-being is placed much higher on the agenda for decision-makers at Whitehall shaping strategies to help the UK’s higher education sector make a strong recovery from the pandemic.

The sector needs the funding and resources to get better at spotting students who are most at risk of falling behind or dropping out altogether. A scheme that identifies best practice in this area from across the world would be a good place to start – and the benefits of doing this could be much more long-term for students.

Some of the early intervention measures put in place globally to improve student well-being can be very simple to implement. One study conducted over several years by Perry Samson, professor of climate and space sciences and engineering at the University of Michigan, is a case in point.

Professor Samson has contributed to much academic research into student behaviour in higher education. His study suggests that simply asking students how they feel as part of a typical lesson is an effective way to flag well-being issues.

He regularly asks his students to indicate on a chart how they feel they are doing emotionally and physically each day. The exercise takes only a few minutes and Professor Samson has found it to be a valuable early indicator of which students are coping well with university life and which are struggling.

Interestingly, on analysing the data over time, he has suggested a link between the average daily measures of self-reported wellness and his students’ exam grades. Additional research is needed to explore this further, so government funding for studies such as this in the UK are essential for helping universities put effective early intervention strategies in place to improve student well-being across the sector.

The future of blended learning

Many students are currently contemplating whether the blend of face-to-face and online learning that most universities have been providing since lockdown 1.0 is meeting their expectations.

To retain these students, universities need the freedom to be able to innovate and collaborate more widely to shape their blended learning offering.

But when more than a quarter of students say they’re unable to access online learning, particularly if they’re disabled, government is under growing pressure to go much further than the £50 million of funding most recently made available to support students who are struggling financially as a result of the pandemic.

A longer-term strategy is needed, perhaps similar to the funding of catch-up tuition for schools, to ensure every student gets the help they need to gain the qualifications and skills they aspired to achieve before Covid-19.

The experience of being at university in person can never be replicated completely online, that’s for sure. But as we head into the new academic year and beyond, government policy must support the transformation that’s taking place in the higher education sector as we try to shape a blended and online learning offering that is fit for a future beyond Covid-19.

John Couperthwaite has worked in the higher education sector for nearly 25 years, including more than 15 years at the University of Birmingham, where he helped lead technology-enhanced learning. He is now customer success manager at Echo360.  


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