Personal touch proves key to student retention

Early intervention is vital, say the institutions that buck the dropout trend. Rebecca Attwood reports

March 6, 2008

"One billion pounds 'wasted' as one in five students drops out"; "£800 million drive to cut university dropout rate has failed, say MPs".

These were the headlines that greeted the release late last month of the report from the House of Commons Public Accounts Committee on the retention of students on higher education courses. The study found that the percentage of students dropping out of university had "not budged" from 22 per cent in five years. But some universities are bucking the trend.

At the University of Chichester, continuation rates in 2004-05 were 94.4 per cent, up 6.5 percentage points since 2001-02 and above the benchmark that the Higher Education Funding Council for England sets for each individual institution, in its case 90 per cent.

Robin Baker, Chichester's vice-chancellor, said: "A lot of students who come to us, both mature learners and 18-year-olds, don't have a lot of confidence in their ability to make it in education. They need a lot of support, and it is almost part of our DNA to provide that.

"We have quite a feeling of a community in our university, which has meant that students want to stay."

According to new research for the Higher Education Academy, which surveyed students not returning to higher education, the major influences on their decision were: choosing the wrong programme; concerns over the quality of teaching; lack of contact with academic staff, inadequate academic progress, financial worries and lack of personal commitment to study.

The researchers leading the study, Mantz Yorke and Bernard Longden, say there is no quick fix for the problem of dropouts. They advise institutions to use research evidence and professional judgment, and to review practices to find ways of "bending the odds" in favour of student success.

The University of Worcester, which had a continuation rate of 87.8 per cent in 2004-05 against its benchmark of 88.7 per cent, has reviewed its practices and taken action to increase support during points in the academic calendar when students are most likely to drop out.

According to its vice-chancellor, David Green, the university is seeing strong results as a result of innovations to its induction programme, which include inviting freshers to start a week earlier than other students and introducing activities designed to help them feel at home.

Computer software that allows staff to see when a student has not completed an assignment acts as an early-warning system for potential problems throughout the year.

Some institutions are also working to ensure that students manage the important transition from first to second year.

Leni Oglesby, senior deputy vice-chancellor at the University of Teesside, said: "The transition points between the years are critical moments. It is all too easy for students to go home for a long summer break and think, 'Shall I go back?'"

Other times when students most need support are when they embark on work-based placements and when they are working on dissertations, she said.

For Ravensbourne College of Design and Communication, whose continuation rates rose 6.1 percentage points to 92.1 per cent for 2004-05, preparation is vital. "We interview every applicant and make sure that every student fully understands the course," said Robin Baker, director and chief executive.

Students are asked about their expectations, and the college makes it clear what it can do to match them.

Universities including Nottingham Trent and Edge Hill were praised by the Public Accounts Committee for carrying out in-depth research to help them understand why students leave courses.

Teesside exceeded its Hefce benchmark by 2.7 percentage points in 2004-05 while increasing the proportion of students from lower socioeconomic groups by about 2.5 per cent in the preceding three years. It won funding from the European Social Fund to carry out research that helped it identify the critical moments of a student's progression. It is now researching foundation-degree students, part-time students, and black and ethnic minority students.

The Public Accounts Committee report says that, nationally, only about half of part-time students obtain a qualification within six years.

"Part-time students have to juggle many demands," Professor Oglesby said, "and universities need to make sure they understand that and have services available at the times part-time students want them. One example of how we have done this is extending the hours of the student services drop-in centre."

Teesside has also set up a student retention team, which works with departments to develop a plan for action where a problem appears to be developing. Eighteen months ago, retention support officers were appointed to each of Teesside's six schools.

Professor Oglesby said: "They provide a friendly, neutral ear for students. They also alert us to the early signs of students who may be at risk of not completing. If a student has not been attending, (a member of the team) will write a friendly letter, make a phone call or send a text and say, 'I haven't seen you around in a while - is everything OK?' Student retention is built into our mission."

The Higher Education Academy is running events on student retention on behalf of Hefce and the National Audit Office in March and April.

See The Higher Education Academy related webpage


The National Audit Office recommends:

- Use management information to understand retention; contact early leavers to help establish the real reasons why they left;

- Build strategic commitment to retention and ensure that all staff understand and buy into it;

- Secure commitment from students to attend lectures and carry out independent study;

- Provide properly resourced tutoring support and facilities for students;

- Broaden students' learning options;

- Allow students options to fit their personal circumstances, for example through comprehensive modular systems;

- Provide 'one-stop-shop' specialist support services, incorporating areas such as welfare and finance.

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