Excessive focus on cutting dropouts ‘may hamper widening access’

Policymakers urged to spread best practice rather than use heavy-handed regulation to force focus on retention

January 7, 2021
A BMX rider falls as he competes in the National Adventure Sports Show in Shepton Mallet, Somerset, south west England
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Focusing too heavily on university dropout rates in UK policymaking could have negative consequences and could conflict with other government priorities, ministers have been warned.

Institutions’ performance on retention has come under particular scrutiny in recent years, for example, via its inclusion as a key metric in the teaching excellence framework, meaning that campuses that report a rise in the number of dropouts risk reputational or financial damage.

But a report published by the Higher Education Policy Institute on 7 January highlights that “not all instances of dropping out are bad”, with some cases simply reflecting changes in students’ personal circumstances or them finding another option that is even more attractive.

In fact, evidence from surveys conducted by Hepi and Advance HE suggests that as many as one in four students would choose a different course or university – or both – if they were to be faced with the same options again.

Attempts to reduce the dropout rate further could disincentivise universities from recruiting students from disadvantaged or ethnic minority backgrounds, who, data suggest, are less likely to complete their course.

The report, authored by Hepi director Nick Hillman, highlights that the UK’s dropout rate is already among the lowest in the world, suggesting that the country is “taking insufficient risks in terms of who it enrols in higher education”.

Focusing excessively on reducing dropouts could also conflict with the Westminster government’s stated aim of providing more flexible loan funding to allow students to take courses in segments.

“There is tension between reducing non-completion rates and promoting flexible lifelong learning pathways, where people are encouraged to access learning in bite-size chunks through modularised, unbundled and short courses,” the report says.

The report recommends consideration of the introduction of interim qualifications during bachelor’s courses to ensure that students who do not complete the full programme still get some credit, which could be useful in the labour market or for further study – although Mr Hillman acknowledges that this could encourage some people to stop before achieving their original target.

The paper also advocates the creation of easier re-entry routes to higher education for students who have previously dropped out, including in terms of student loan eligibility.

It recommends better use of data and the introduction of “exit interviews” to understand why particular types of students are more likely to drop out, and for targeted action to address the issues uncovered.

Mr Hillman said that it was “good that we are discussing the issue in greater detail, not least because some students are more prone to dropping out than others”. But, he added, “it is ridiculously easy to draw the wrong conclusions from the data”.

“Not all instances of dropping out are bad. There can be good reasons why a student cannot or should not continue with their course. Moreover, the UK already has the lowest dropout rate in the developed world,” Mr Hillman said.

“Attempts to reduce this further could mean disincentivising the recruitment of more disadvantaged students who would be more strongly encouraged to enrol in higher education in other countries.

“The best approach to helping students who are considering leaving their course is to limit heavy-handed regulation and instead to spread best practice.”


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