UK student dropout rates hit record low in pandemic

Economic uncertainty may have encouraged students to stay in education despite campus closures, says UK statistics body

March 17, 2022
Locked gate illustrating news article about record low UK dropout rates among university students
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Dropout rates at UK universities fell to record low levels during the early stages of the pandemic, official figures show.

Only 5.3 per cent of young full-time students left their course in the first year in 2019-20 – a period that includes the first five months of the Covid-19 pandemic, which saw university campuses close in March 2020 and switch to remote teaching.

Despite concerns that the rapid pivot to online learning would see dropout rates soar, the opposite was true; attrition rates for all first-year students fell by 1.4 percentage points compared with the previous year, according to new data published by the Higher Education Statistics Agency (Hesa).

That is the lowest recorded dropout rate since Hesa began collating national statistics, it said.

Only 9.4 per cent of full-time first-degree entrants in the UK are now projected to leave higher education with no award, a fall of 1.7 percentage points from the previous year, and also the lowest rate on record. Some 82.1 per cent of full-time degree students are projected to finish a degree with the same higher education provider with whom they started.

Universities minister Michelle Donelan said it was “welcome to see that for the first time, it is projected over 90 per cent of students will complete a qualification – the highest rate ever recorded”.

“This is real progress, impacting real lives – and I want to put on record my thanks to our universities for their hard work, especially through a challenging pandemic, in reaching this milestone,” said Ms Donelan. She added: “I have long argued that when it comes to university, getting on is every bit as important as getting in, and that universities must focus on tackling dropout rates among students.”

Non-continuation rate for first-year mature entrants fell even more sharply, from 13.5 per cent to 11.9 per cent.

Hesa said the “increase in the proportion of entrants continuing in higher education after their first year cannot be directly attributed to the Covid-19 pandemic, but there is often a trend for increased higher education enrolments in periods of economic uncertainty”.

“This behaviour may extend to a desire to continue degree courses when other paths outside higher education are less certain,” it added.

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