Student retention is an ever-greater concern for institutions. Tony Cook, director of the Student Transition and Retention (Star) project, which was set up by a consortium of universities to look at how to prevent students from dropping out, says that a significant number of students who have accepted a place fail to turn up on the first day.
He believes institutions need to work harder at the recruitment stage to ensure students make informed decisions and to recognise that there can be a conflict between recruitment and retention. Recruitment officers are salesmen, he says. “In order not to lose students, they should be recruiting honestly in the first place.”
He says it is a good idea to keep in touch with students in the months after they have accepted a place. Since his institution set up an e-newsletter for such students a year ago, the number of those who fail to turn up at the beginning of term has dropped from more than 20 to two.
Once they are through the doors, students also need some kind of introduction to university life. Cook says this should be longer than is normally the case, lasting even to the end of the first year.
Diane Nutt, head of the student retention team at Teesside University, says it is important to think particularly carefully about students’ first year to make sure they get a good start. She says academics and support services should work together to plan ahead for issues that may affect students at the beginning of their courses.
Information on what help is available needs to be easily accessible, especially during the first few days of term, when staff also need to be on hand. Staff also need to be aware that some students may have no idea what university is about, and may not be familiar with terms such as semester or seminar.
Jocey Quinn, lecturer in higher education at Exeter University and lead author of a Joseph Rowntree report on working-class students who drop out, says students need clear feedback on how well they are doing at the start of their course.
She says academics should make sure they know what support is available and ensure that students know about it too. Where possible, study skills and learning support should be integrated into the curriculum. Students must be made to feel that they are entitled to support and will not be labelled needy if they ask for help.
Steve Draper, a senior lecturer in psychology who has been investigating student dropouts, says offering peer mentoring to everyone when they arrive at university appears to be a particularly successful way of helping those who struggle later in their university career. “Students in trouble are put off talking to someone by the slightest thing,” he says. Peer mentoring works because they can talk to someone they know already.
While offering support and social networks for new students helps, Cook says most of the research into students who drop out suggests that the course is usually the problem. He says that people who design courses have not come through the present A-level system and do not necessarily make allowances for how teaching in schools has changed since their day.
Nutt says you need to ensure that courses seem relevant. “By introducing real relevance at the beginning of their studies you can engage students,” she says. “Once they are involved they are more likely to stay even if they are having problems in other areas such as family or money problems.”
Draper says research by a PhD student suggests that if the way students have studied a subject at school differs greatly to how they will be expected to study at university, they may struggle and drop out.
But does it matter? Quinn concluded from her research that leaving and then coming back should not be seen as a problem. She calls on academics to maximise the flexibility of the system and make sure students are aware of the possibilities of going part time or changing their course.
• Student Transition and Retention, The Star Project: www.ulster.ac.uk/star
• Steve Draper's work on dropouts: www.psy.gla.ac.uk/steve/localed
• From Life Crisis to Lifelong Learning: Rethinking Working Class Dropout from Higher Education, by J. Quinn; L. Thomas; K. Slack; L. Casey; W. Thexton and J. Nobel, Joseph Rowntree Foundation, York Publishing, 2005.