STUDENT RETENTION AND THE QUALITY OF TEACHING
AND LEARNING: HUMAN RESOURCES FOR THE KNOWLEDGE AGE
The key issues concerning the issues of student
retention rates in higher education (HE), the recruitment of academic
staff and the quality of teaching and learningand hence
the student experiencecan be coherently discussed with
reference to the diagram below which presents a stylised picture
of the HE process.
HUMAN RESOURCE FLOWS IN HIGHER EDUCATION
The process starts with a flow of E students
entering the system. Higher education itself can be thought of
as a production process in which these E students are taught by
a stock of academic staff (S). One key factor in the quality of
this process, and hence the quality (Q) of the eventual output
of N graduates will be the staff-student ration (SSR). Of course
in the process there will be some early exit or drop-out (D).
(Thus D/E is the drop-out rate and N/E the retention rate). Of
these N graduates, A will decide on an academic career. Some of
these will add to the domestic academic stock and others will
form part of the brain drain overseas. The domestic academic stock
is also added to by any inflow of academics from overseas.
In this framework, there are four points where
policy can influence things.
The first is in relation to E. Policy
that encourages increased participation in HE will increase E.
Given the SSR, this will increase N.
The second is in relation to D. Students
may drop out for a range of reasons but the most important are
student debt and failure. The first of these depends crucially
on the nature of policies designed to mitigate the debt problem
(both the absolute size of the debt and the cultural attitude
to debt). The second of these is critically related to student
support and guidance mechanisms in HE and the effectiveness of
these depends to a considerable extent on factors such as SSR.
The third critical point comes where
graduates take career choices. There is overwhelming evidence
that these choices are guided by relative earnings prospects.
Over at least the last 10 years, the gap between non-academic
and academic earnings has widened considerably. For example, in
economics the differential in 1990 was 30 per cent but had grown
to 56 per cent by 1998. So it is hardly surprising that the last
three years the LSE has only attracted one UK student to do a
PhD in Economics and the ESRC has seen historically low take-up
rates for its postgraduate research awards in the subject.
The fourth critical point comes when
academics make the decisions on where they will work. Some UK
trained candidates will move overseas and some trained overseas
will move to the UK. Clearly this is a decision where relative
earning prospects will be crucial. Again, if we take the case
of a young academic economist, comparable data for 1996 show the
US/UK salary differential was approximately 40 per cent. This
gap is almost certainly wider today. Thus it is not surprising
that this widening of international pay differentials has created
problems for the replenishment of the UK's academic stock. By
2005 this replacement problem will "go critical" as
the spike of academics recruited in the expansionary post-Robbins
Thus retention, recruitment and quality in HE
are first and foremost issues of resources. These need to be delivered
on two fronts:
Resources both to (a) provide a safety
net that prevents debt driving students to exit and (b) fund a
mechanism that makes debt bearable (eg delaying the date of payback
either by setting a higher income exemption level or extending
the period of grace).
Resources to ensure that UK universities
have the quantity and quality of academic stock (whether home
grown or imported) to achieve staff-student ratios that can deliver
the output of quality graduates that will assure the UK's competitive
Professor John Beath
School of Social Sciences, University of St Andrews, Royal Economic
Society and Conference of Heads of UK Departments of Economics
25 January 2001