The measure of dropouts

December 11, 2014

I read with interest the leader on the National Audit Office’s report into financial support for students at “alternative” providers (“Failing to look, listen or legislate”, 4 December).

In particular, relying on the NAO report, the article suggested that dropout rates of more than 20 per cent at some alternative providers compared unfavourably with 4 per cent across the sector and said this “demonstrates the strength of…mainstream universities”.

The alternative provider dropout rates are misleadingly based on Student Loans Company data that treat as “dropouts” students whom the SLC initially mistakenly assessed as “eligible” for loan support and then, when correcting the mistake, treated as withdrawing from the institution named in the, sometimes fraudulent, application – even though the institution had not encouraged or endorsed the application and had never enrolled or even heard of the applicant.

As regards dropouts in the Higher Education Funding Council for England sector, it sets individual institutional benchmarks for categories of students, based on socio-economic variables, and the Higher Education Statistics Agency publishes tables that show that for mature full-time “other” undergraduate students those benchmarks exceed 14 per cent for more than 20 UK universities and are higher than 20 per cent for several institutions.

There is no convincing evidence that alternative provider performance is worse than that of the publicly funded sector if allowance is made for the characteristics of the student cohort. However, it does seem that alternative providers may be proving more effective than Hefce institutions in attracting “non-traditional” students.

To inform this debate, the alternative sector too requires reliable benchmarking data to avoid popular opinion being influenced by prejudice.

I am confident that fair comparison will show that, in value for public money terms, the quality-oriented alternative providers, such as the London School of Business and Finance (LSBF), compare well with The Open University and other Hefce-funded institutions with a sizeable commitment to widening participation.

Then you may indeed experience an OMG moment of the kind described in the leader.

Maurits Van Rooijen
Rector and chief executive officer
London School of Business and Finance

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