Dozens of universities ‘struggling to make progress on retention’

Social Market Foundation research dismisses claim that widening participation hampers improvements

September 6, 2016
Woman pushing large stone

Dozens of English universities are “making no progress or going backwards” on reducing their student dropout rates, a new analysis says.

Analysis of higher education institutions’ performance on retention, conducted by the Social Market Foundation, found that “very few” institutions had made significant progress on improving continuation between 2009-10 and 2014-15.

Many universities displayed “modest” progress, but nearly 50 were either standing still or facing a growing dropout rate, the report says.

National data show that the average proportion of first degree entrants aged under 21 at English higher education institutions who did not continue their studies beyond their first year decreased from 6.4 per cent to 5.9 per cent between 2009-10 and 2014-15, although the latest figure represented a year-on-year increase of 0.2 percentage point, the first such rise for four years.

Students from the most deprived backgrounds are consistently more likely to drop out, with 8.2 per cent of these students failing to continue into their second year in 2014-15.

The SMF analysis finds that institutional retention performance is closely linked to league table performance – with universities outside Times Higher Education’s top 20 in England tending to have much higher dropout rates – and also to average Ucas tariff scores. In general, the lower the tariff score, the higher the dropout rate.

However, the SMF says that universities cannot claim that widening participation has hampered their retention efforts, because its analysis finds no correlation between expanding the proportion of students from the poorest backgrounds at an institution and changes in its dropout rate.

The report, which was supported by Hobsons, also highlights a number of institutions that perform very strongly on retention despite tending to appear lower down the league tables. These include City, University of London; the University of Lincoln; and Kingston University.

What the analysis does find is a correlation between better results in the National Student Survey and lower dropout rates.

Emran Mian, the director of the SMF, said that universities that prioritised student success were likely to see lower rates of non-continuation.

“Our research…suggests that institutions cannot claim that making progress on widening participation has impaired their performance on increasing retention rates,” Mr Mian said. “Policymakers, students and taxpayers expect institutions to make progress on both fronts.”

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