Strike it rich by drilling into the vulnerable core

June 8, 2007

Halting dropous could bring big rewards, says Ormonjd Simpson in our series on new ideas for higher education

New students entering British universities this autumn are taking a considerable risk. Their chance of losing all their investment (or their parents' investment) in their higher education is about 20 per cent - their risk of dropping out in their first year. In investment terms, this is a high risk - higher than putting their money into wildcat oil-well drilling, where there would be only a 10 per cent chance of losing their entire investment.

But that's not all these students are risking. There is evidence that dropouts from university will not only end up in debt but that, compared with both A-level students and graduates, they tend to have higher levels of unemployment, depression and poorer physical health.

Of course, their depression could be a cause rather than a consequence of dropping out. But the facts suggest that this is not the case. These are individuals who were not too depressed to get to university in the first place but who wind up with more mental-health problems than either A-level students or graduates. The evidence suggests that depression is more often an effect of dropout rather than a cause.

If the Government's widening participation target of 50 per cent is reached without any improvement in the dropout rate then every year about 10 per cent of our 18-year-olds will endure the experience of quitting before the end of their courses, with all the consequences for their future employment, physical and mental health.

The economist Richard Layard recently suggested that depression is the most serious health problem facing the nation and that it costs us more than unemployment - a figure of £17 billion a year. If one of the effects of higher education is to increase the incidence of depression in 10 per cent of the UK age cohort every year then student retention becomes not just an interest for a few people in universities. This is a national problem with serious consequences if it is not addressed.

In addition, there are the national financial losses due to the waste of effort involved. Few industries could operate at 80 per cent efficiency, but the grants lost to universities because of student dropout are trivial compared with the losses to UK gross domestic product.

Of course, it will be argued that in international terms the UK does quite well in student retention. But it is not clear what the "natural limit" to student success is, or if that limit is anywhere near being reached. Nor is it clear how much dropout could be avoided by institutional action. I believe that it is time for a coherent research strategy to tackle these issues through the establishment of a "National Centre for Student Success". The focus of such a centre would be to help UK higher education institutions increase their student success from recruitment to graduation.

It would seek to do this in a number of ways. It would provide information and advice on the latest research and evaluation in student success, bringing together much excellent individual but uncoordinated work. It would also undertake its own research into aspects of student success.

Particular areas of research might include:

* The financial returns on investing in retention for students, institutions and the UK as a whole

* The psychology of student success, perhaps using findings from motivational research and the relatively new field of positive psychology

* Institutional attitudes to student success - do institutions sometimes in effect sabotage their students?

* The school-university transition, especially in the light of widening participation strategies.

The centre would also evaluate individual institutional retention strategies and make recommendations. It would work directly with appropriate institutional staff in the short and long term to develop retention-friendly strategies and practices. And it would raise the profile of student success nationally and internationally through publications, events, conferences and press releases.

The centre might initially seek funding from official sources such as the Higher Education Funding Council for England. It would need only a small proportion of the funding currently allocated to various centres for excellence in teaching and learning and national teaching fellowships whose outcomes, although very worthy, tend to be local in nature. However, the centre could become self-funding after a few years through consultancy fees charged to institutions that would in turn benefit financially from increased retention. The model might be the Noel-Levitz Corporation in the US, a private consultancy on student retention funded entirely from the savings it makes for US universities in increasing their student retention.

But perhaps a national centre is not ambitious enough. In the past year, I have been asked to talk about student retention not only in the UK but in places as varied as China, The Gambia, Papua New Guinea and New Zealand. So why not an "International Centre for Student Success", which might build up a healthy export trade? It could certainly be a better investment than wildcat oil-well drilling...

Ormond Simpson is senior lecturer in institutional research at the Open University.

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