John Denham, the Universities Secretary, has claimed that poor teaching could be a factor in the higher dropout rates seen at some universities, as performance indicators are published on retention and widening participation.
In a letter to the Higher Education Funding Council for England, Mr Denham says he is concerned about the wide variations in retention rates between institutions.
“No doubt there will be a number of factors to explain why certain institutions have particularly low retention rates. However, it seems likely that the quality of teaching and the student experience will be important components,” he writes.
The letter suggests that the Quality Assurance Agency might comment on universities’ retention rates when it conducts audits in the future.
“I know that your quality subcommittee, chaired by Colin Riordan, has already, as part of its work, looked at the possible future role of the QAA and the next audit cycle,” he says. “This could be a good opportunity to consider what part the QAA could play in creating greater visibility and a better understanding of retention rates and variations between institutions.”
The Universities Secretary also writes that he is disappointed that the proportion of students from lower socio-economic groups in England has fallen from 29.8 per cent to 29.4 per cent, although he welcomes the fact that the proportion of young university entrants from state schools has risen to 87.4 per cent.
But the dropout figures, he writes, give “mixed messages”. He adds that he would welcome Hefce’s view on what has caused the changes.
Figures from the Higher Education Statistics Agency, published today, show that for students starting full-time first degrees in the UK in 2006-07, the proportion who had dropped out a year later was 9 per cent, up from 8.6 per cent the previous year.
For the whole of the UK, the proportion of young full-time undergraduate entrants from state schools increased from 88.3 per cent to 88.5 per cent. But the proportion from lower socio-economic groups fell slightly, from 30.3 to 30.1 per cent in 2007-08.
The highest dropout rate was found at the UHI Millennium Institute, where 28.2 per cent did not continue to the second year. It was followed by the University of Bolton with 20.7 per cent and Edinburgh Napier University with 16.9 per cent.
However, these institutions also recorded the smallest proportion of students from lower socio-economic groups. At Oxford, 10.5 per cent of students came from these groups, at the Courtauld 10.8 per cent and at Cambridge 11 per cent.
Once again, Harper Adams University College was the most inclusive institution, with 57.2 per cent of its intake coming from less well-off groups. It was followed by London Metropolitan University (54.9 per cent) and Bishop Grosseteste University College Lincoln (53.1 per cent).
Rick Trainor, president of Universities UK, the body that represents university vice-chancellors, argued that the figures were encouraging.
He said: “The current targets and benchmarks – ‘performance indicators’ – are only partial indicators of change and do not reflect universities’ varying missions and circumstances.
“We have been saying for some time that the key to widening participation in higher education lies in raising awareness earlier on in the education process and in increasing attainment levels in schools – and recent research (from the Teaching and Learning Research Programme) confirms this.
“Universities, schools and colleges are working together to raise aspirations and academic attainment among young people. The shared aim is to increase participation in higher education.
“All the UK’s universities – through an enormous range of initiatives – are committed to widening access for under-represented groups, but there still remains work to be done.”
Professor Trainor added that the retention figures had changed only marginally.
“The UK continues to have one of the most successful completion rates for higher education in the world. Universities continue to offer as much support as possible to ensure that students complete their studies successfully,” he said.
Sally Hunt, general secretary of the University and College Union, called for greater support for the universities that do the most to attract students from poorer backgrounds.
She said: “Over the past decade, in England alone, nearly £3 billion has been spent on measures to widen social-class participation in higher education. Today’s figures are a stark reminder that we need to be more imaginative if we are to make higher education a realistic and affordable option for all people who can benefit from it.
“The figures are quite timely as we look ahead to the review into top-up fees and higher education funding. Those advocating higher fees or even privatised universities need to think again.”
Ms Hunt added that the bottom line was that the punitive cost of higher education was putting off the very students the Government wished to attract.
“Of equal concern are the higher dropout rates at the institutions that are doing the most to try to attract students from poorer backgrounds. Their work needs to be given greater support, not criticised,” she said.
Wes Streeting, president of the National Union of Students, was highly critical of the sector after viewing the figures.
“They show that universities are getting even worse at widening participation from students from poorer backgrounds, despite promising to work harder in this area in return for the ability to charge top-up fees.
“The idea that fees could be raised to £5,000 a year without any impact on those from lower socio-economic backgrounds is laughable, particularly given the current harsh economic climate.
“In England, we also need to completely rethink the way that universities are funded. Top-up fees are leaving a generation of students in unprecedented levels of debt, and if the cap were to be raised, many more people from poorer backgrounds would be forced to conclude that they simply could not afford to go to university at all.
“That is why next week the NUS will be launching a radical alternative blueprint for funding our universities. We are challenging politicians to join us in debating this issue, rather than simply kicking it into the long grass and hoping that it will go away.”
He added: “Universities are not working hard enough to help those who are struggling to cope with the costs and demands of higher education. The current system of financial support, which leaves the administration of bursaries in the hands of individual institutions, is not working. We need a national scheme, so that financial support is based on how much a student needs it, not where they happen to be studying.”
Update: 4 June 2009
The University and College Union (UCU) said it was “outraged and astonished” at Mr Denham’s claim that high dropouts were related to poor teaching.
UCU general secretary, Sally Hunt, said: “I am outraged and astonished that the minister is trying to suggest that the reason for an increase in dropouts is down to poor teaching. His comments are another kick in the teeth for lecturers whose reward for all their extra hard work has been an insulting pay offer of just 0.4% and the news that, as students numbers increase again this year, 100 universities are planning to axe jobs.
“The number of students attending university has increased considerably in the past few years and it is lecturers who continue to deliver high quality teaching despite rising class sizes and increased workloads. John Denham’s comments show a lack of understanding of the key pastoral work so many UCU members undertake in providing support above and beyond the call of duty for students struggling at university. If he is looking for reasons why students are dropping out, it may be worth him considering the record levels of debt and the government is saddling them with.”