Choose in haste, drop out in haste

August 25, 2000

Why are some universities more successful at hanging on to students than others? Alison Goddard reports.

The coming weeks are crucial for potential students. The scramble for places during clearing means that some make snap decisions they soon regret.

Of those students who drop out in the first year, half do so in the first few weeks, according to staff at the University of the West of England.

Yet the university performs well in terms of attracting and retaining students.

According to the Higher Education Funding Council for England benchmark, some 13 per cent could be expected to leave UWE without a qualification. This is based on the university's subject mix and undergraduate entry qualifications. Yet just 10 per cent do.

The first step in retaining students is to ensure that they are on a course that is right for them. A large number of students leave because their course does not meet their career expectations, according to UWE research.

UWE compiles entry profiles to tell students whether a particular course is right for them. The profiles describe the skills and personal attributes a student should have to enrol on the course and the various entry routes through A levels, advanced GNVQs and access courses.

Chris Croudace, who coordinates UWE's education initiatives unit, says:

"Most universities are good at setting entry qualifications but do not specify what it takes for someone to cope with a course, the skills and personal characteristics that will pull you through."

Students can access profiles through a website run by the Universities and Colleges Admissions Service - along with entry profiles for courses at 25 other institutions.

The University of Northumbria at Newcastle also has a good record at seeing its students - particularly those from poorer backgrounds - through to the successful completion of their degrees. Its predicted dropout rate is 13 per cent but the actual figure is just 9 per cent.

Some 17 per cent of its young full-time undergraduates come from neighbourhoods where the participation rate is less than two-thirds the national average. Given its subject mix, the funding council calculates that Northumbria could expect to recruit 13 per cent of its students from these areas.

The University of Northumbria is proud of the fact that it has never gained less than an excellent rating for student support and guidance in any of its teaching quality assessments.

Nick Hall, head of access and continuing education service, says: "People ask how we get these scores. It's because of our student-centred approach. Reaching and retaining students is our bread and butter, and it is fully embedded. We are an ex-poly and that is what polys were about.

"One of the main factors in withdrawal is that it tends to happen early in the course, often quite quickly in the first few weeks. It is often because people are on the wrong course. We want to make sure our students are as well-informed as possible.

"It is about giving as much information as we can - even if a student decides that higher education isn't right for them, it saves the mental anguish. We ensure that students have a realistic expectation of coming to university."

Once a student is enrolled on a suitable course, a raft of integrated support measures is needed to keep them on track.

Rob Cuthbert, pro vice-chancellor for academic development at UWE, says:

"If there is a magic ingredient in how we retain our students, it's how consistently we support students, making sure the system works for everybody.

"We are very aware of marrying up the academic and financial advice. You might suggest, academically, that a student should cut the number of modules that he is taking this year, but that would have an effect on his eligibility for financial support. We want to make sure we can consistently support our students, academically and financially."

The approach is similar at the University of Northumbria. Shelagh Groves, student welfare manager, says: "We spread a net that students cannot fall through."

Every member of staff at the university is provided with referral and contract information on services and support for students, covering learning, finance, part-time employment, counselling and child care - the university runs two nurseries, each taking 18 children aged between two-and-a-half and five-years-old. For students with younger children, it offers a child-care subsidy, which about 20 students receive.

"Finance is a huge problem. I see students who are working 20 hours a week as well as full-time study, and they are tired. Mature students face special problems. The government stops their benefits and, if they apply late, it can be months before they can get a student loan. We have to give out emergency loans," Ms Groves says.

At UWE, staff are also busy advising students and potential students on the financial implications of their academic decisions.

Tim Roberts, a bursary administrator at the centre for student affairs, says: "From May to September, we do a lot of 'better off benefits' calculations for people who haven't been handed the relevant leaflet by their head of sixth form. We look at each student's finances in a holistic way."

From September, mature full-time students - particularly lone parents - will become eligible for a Pounds 1,000 bursary. However, Mr Roberts is critical of the system because it cannot guarantee a student funding for the duration of the course but asks him or her to apply annually for the cash.

He says: "You are asking potential students to make a great leap of faith and they are reticent to do so without knowing the future financial situation.

"For example, most lone parents are going to be worse off under the guaranteed student support arrangements than on benefit. We can point out that the student may be eligible for help from the hardship funds. Unfortunately, the numbers are limited. What happens if there is money for 350 students and you are the 351st?" Finally, students should be made aware of the psychological changes that will take place during their studies - and that the changes may not be welcome.

Nick Hall, head of access and continuing education service at the University of Northumbria, says: "Coming to university is going to change your life... you will have guilt trips."

Hall recounts the tale of a mother whose guilt at spending time away from her daughter was assuaged by the child talking about "when I go to university" - it had become a normal aspiration.

Another mature student found that talking about the work he had done with his classmate Joanne was making his wife jealous. He changed the name to Steve.

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