Swap kid gloves for a red ballpoint

December 9, 2005

Going to university has been presented as a soft option. No wonder so many drop out, argues One of the unfortunate consequences of the audit culture is that it unleashes a chain of events that are not only perverse but detrimental to academic life. Performance indicators have a nasty habit of encouraging academics to meet targets rather than to improve performance.

And slavish pursuit of indicators often causes us to lose sight of what is in students' best interests. The Higher Education Funding Council for England's most cherished performance indicator is increasing access to higher education. But it is not enough to get bums on seats. We need to keep them there for three years, hence performance indicators on student retention.

Students have always dropped out, sometimes for good reasons, sometimes from boredom. But in recent years, the manner in which they have dropped out has raised fundamental questions about higher education. One reason for this shift is that many students are encouraged to believe that higher education is a soft version of school, with the bonus of good paper qualifications. The ethos that suggests that when students come to university they buy a service distracts them from serious study, and failing assessments is probably the most significant reason first-years drop out.

For universities, retaining students is an important objective. Those that fail to do so face serious financial penalties. So how do you hold on to students who would rather be elsewhere? Some universities have laid on skills courses for entrants who are likely to find undergraduate work hard going. Others have induction programmes to assist the transition to university life. Managerial solutions abound. Personal development planning is one of those managerial artefacts that promises individual attention but delivers merely another paper trail. But probably the most widely used response is what bureaucrats call "enhancing the student experience". If you look at universities' websites, you will find that institutions are fervently committed to enhancing the student experience. Photos of lively entertainment venues and exciting cultural activities transmit the message that universities are indeed experience-enhancing.

But enhancing the student experience represents an implicit undertaking that they will not be given a hard time. Diminishing coursework requirements and grade inflation are proof of an "enhanced experience".

About one student in seven leaves without completing his or her course.

This is almost certainly an underestimate, since universities have devised techniques for minimising the appearance of a retention problem.

According to a report published in The Sunday Times , Lincoln University did its bit for retention by giving marks for non-existent work. A leaked memo indicates that Lincoln staff were sent instructions to give 5 per cent to undergraduates who had not submitted any work for a whole year.

But retention figures obscure a more disturbing truth - a large number of students have a disengaged relationship with their institutions. The only reason more do not leave is because they can carry on, serve their time and get a degree with a minimum of hassle.

The imperative of student retention has altered university life. Lecturers are strongly encouraged to hold on to students. And although the assumption "by any means necessary" is rarely articulated, it is often on the tip of managers' tongues.

Frank Furedi is professor of sociology at Kent University.

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