You say dropouts, but I say lifelong learners

October 26, 2007

Our obsession with completing degree courses in three years is a big obstacle to widening access, warns Peter Lampl. While living in Munich shortly after I graduated, I formed a relationship with a student from Kent University. She left university and came to live with me in Germany. From there we went to New York, where she continued her studies, which in the US was considered perfectly normal. In my view, her educational journey had been nothing but a success. Yet from the British point of view she was still labelled a university dropout.

During the ten years the Sutton Trust has been working to provide educational opportunities for non-privileged young people, I have often come across the misconception that students who do not complete their course within the traditional three years are dropouts, which is, without question, a negative.

This has been fuelled by certain sections of the press who have run league tables shaming institutions according to the percentage of students who leave early - the implication being that too many young people pursue paths for which they are not suited. This means they leave university before they have completed their courses, resulting in a waste of everyone's time and taxpayers' money.

But in reality Britain's universities have a low dropout rate. According to data from the Higher Education Statistics Agency, about 90 per cent of students continue their studies or graduate at the institution they enter. And according to the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development, the UK has the fifth highest estimated graduation, or "survival", rates, behind Japan, Ireland, Korea and Greece, but ahead of the US, New Zealand and most of our European neighbours.

Despite this high completion rate, shouldn't we be looking to redefine the pejorative term "dropout"? It has a definite stigma, but is it really such a bad thing? In the US there are famous examples of people who have not completed university but found incredible success - Harvard dropouts Bill Gates and Mark Zuckerberg of Facebook, for instance. You rarely hear of similar examples in Britain. The attitude here all too often seems to be that students should stay on courses at all costs.

A 2005 report from the Joseph Rowntree Foundation, From Life Crisis to Lifelong Learning: Rethinking Working-class Drop-out From Higher Education , interviewed 70 young students from non-privileged homes who had left their studies early, as well as a range of lecturers and support staff. The main message was that students had rational reasons for withdrawing from their studies - such as the need to earn or reassess their career paths - and all but one of the 70 intended to return to education.

Most importantly, the majority felt that they had gained skills, confidence and life experience from their time at university. Isn't it better that they experienced a year or so in higher education rather than none at all?

The conclusion of the Rowntree study was that we should not think of these young people as dropouts, but as continuous learners.

We certainly should not punish institutions financially for losing students mid-course. Not only may these youngsters be leaving for good reasons, but the hardest to reach are often also the most likely to leave early. Our obsession with dropouts is a major obstacle to widening access. It gives admissions tutors a disincentive to take a risk on a student they think might be likely to drop out later but who might equally thrive when given the right opportunities.

We also need to face the fact that the prospect of continuous study over a three or four-year period does not appeal to everyone. The Rowntree study highlighted that very few institutions encourage students to change course, go part-time or to take time out from their studies. We need to start thinking about how we can create more flexible modes of learning that meet the needs of modern learners. One way is to ensure that students are able to transfer credits earned at one university to another at a later date. Another is to expand part-time study, and not just for those who already have established careers and want to build on their skills.

A research project we funded in 2005 revealed that a significant number of school-leavers recognised the advantages of studying for a degree part- time. This was particularly true of young people from non-traditional backgrounds who were worried by debt and who were the first in their family to go on to higher education.

Rather than harping on about dropouts, let's develop a more enlightened view of students who choose not to, or are unable to, complete a degree in the standard three or four years. That way we are more likely to tackle the UK's low working-class university participation rate.

Sir Peter Lampl is chairman of the Sutton Trust.

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