Students offered blended learning ‘less likely to drop out’

Advance HE survey finds retention rates have recovered after the easing of Covid restrictions, with students also happier with levels of staff engagement

February 16, 2023
Online learning should not be seen as the poor relation
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UK students were less likely to consider dropping out of their course in 2022 compared with the previous three years, in part because they had been given more flexibility owing to blended learning.

Twenty-three per cent of respondents to Advance HE’s UK Engagement Survey (UKES) say they had considered leaving university last year, down from 28 per cent in 2021.

At 22 per cent, those who report learning via a mix of in-person and virtual delivery were least likely to drop out. In contrast, 25 per cent of those learning mostly virtually and 24 per cent of mostly in-person learners had considered quitting.

The report’s author, Charlotte Holden, research and insights executive at Advance HE, wrote that this may be because blended learning students are “reaping the benefits of both approaches” and enjoying “greater flexibility to fit their learning around their personal lives, which may reduce the number of students who disengage and ultimately leave the course”.

Given that the report also finds a big increase in the number of students undertaking paid work – up 16 per cent since 2015 – and growing concerns about the cost-of-living crisis, such flexibility is only likely to become more important for students in future years, it concludes. Universities continuing to keep some teaching online have faced repeated criticism from government since Covid restrictions were eased but previous surveys have found that many students prefer this way of studying. 

Elsewhere, the nationwide survey – the only one that focuses on the time and effort students invest in their studies – finds undergraduate engagement with courses has bounced back to pre-pandemic levels after dips in 2020 and 2021.

Interaction with staff is at its highest level since 2018, with 38 per cent of students saying they saw staff “often” or “very often”.

Advance HE’s chief executive, Alison Johns, said the recovery in students’ engagement was “welcome” after a “difficult period” during the height of the pandemic.

“This bounce back is largely due to the efforts the sector has made to understand students’ changing needs and adapt the ways it enables students to access to their learning,” she added.

“It is striking that more students now say they interact with staff often and have more opportunities for working in partnership with staff than they have ever had before. That has to be good news and may underpin the positive figures the report shows for student retention.”

But long-term downward trends in students learning collaboratively continued to worsen and they are also more likely to report that courses have less emphasis on research and inquiry.

Blended learners are more likely to spend more time studying independently while online-only students are more likely to be engaged with developing their career skills.

Demands on students’ lives outside of study were also a constant theme in the report. The proportion of those managing caring responsibilities alongside their studies has more than doubled from 18 per cent in 2015 to 37 per cent in 2022.

Ms Johns said the survey “paints an important and challenging picture of the backdrop against which this cohort of undergraduates is studying.

“More students than ever are balancing caring responsibilities and paid work with their courses – something which is likely to reflect the current economic and health situation. The need for work that institutions have initiated to support mental health and mitigate the cost of living crisis remains clear.”

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