Select Committee on Education and Employment Sixth Report


The Education and Employment Committee has agreed to the following Report:—



1. Access to higher education is not only a matter of getting in to university; it is also a matter of staying in and emerging in good standing. We described our Fourth Report of Session 2000-01, on Higher Education: Access as an "interim" Report. In it we announced that "we shall be examining the extent to which students' experience of their higher education is being affected by finance and other pressures and the implications for retention and attrition".[1] As was the case with our Report on access, we intend this Report to make a contribution by helping to set the agenda for debate in the period leading up to the next general election and beyond, to ensure that access to higher education, student financial support and other key issues in higher education are considered properly in context.[2]

2. The United Kingdom has long prided itself on the relatively higher proportions of students who, having obtained a place in university or college, complete their courses and achieve the standard necessary to obtain the qualification for which they have been studying. For a long time failure to complete or to qualify was referred to as 'drop­out' and 'wastage'. The attitude that 'a year in college' was useful in itself, common in other countries, was not common here. Only recently have the terms 'retention' and 'attrition' come into general use to indicate what proportions of students do or do not transfer successfully from one stage of a course to the next.

3. High retention and low non-completion owe much to careful and appropriate initial selection, adequate and readily available means of student support and close individual attention from staff. The expansion of higher education during the 1990s made all these more difficult. Expansion significantly reduced the 'wastage' that is due to only a small proportion of the population being able to access higher education. But it also meant a broader spread of entry qualifications and standards amongst those admitted, and thus less certainty of their success. The high cost of an expanded system and other demands on the public purse meant less generous student support, the substitution of maintenance grants by loans and the introduction of means-tested tuition fee contributions.

4. Staff: student ratios declined from an average of 1:9 in 1980 to 1:17 in 1997[3] (if the funding for research that is included in the average unit of funding is excluded, the staff: student ratio for teaching worsens to approximately 1:23).[4] These figures are averages. In the less well funded institutions the actual ratios are even less impressive. During this time, class sizes grew and opportunities for one­to­one contact with staff diminished. The 'productivity' of higher education was transformed, but at a price. One aspect of that price has been lower rates of retention.

5. We do not wish to over­emphasise the problem. The United Kingdom still has one of the highest graduation rates in the OECD. Fewer students leave prematurely and fewer fail to graduate than elsewhere. But the extent of non-completion analysed later in this Report demands consideration, especially because it is most marked in those institutions that admit the highest proportions of 'non­traditional' students. Increasing non-completion rates could undermine success in opening higher education to a broader spectrum of the population, put off potential students, and cause institutional instability.

6. At the same time, because many students who break off their studies for a time do return to them later, because the distinction between full­time and part­time study is less clear than once it was, and because the concept of life­long learning offers opportunities to re­think the pattern of studies across a person's life­span, there is need to look again at our attitudes towards those who do not complete the courses for which they initially enrolled.

Box 1: Terms of reference

The Education Sub-committee is to carry out an inquiry into higher education. The inquiry will take as its starting point the quality of the student experience after 10 years of progress in developing a mass higher education system, and with the prospect of further increases in participation: for instance, the Prime Minister's aim of a 50 per cent take-up, over time, of higher education by young people. The Sub-committee is interested in the following issues:

1. How is 'quality' in teaching and learning defined?

2. How is teaching quality measured and assured? (The Sub-committee welcomes comments on the work of the Quality Assurance Agency; the Teaching Quality Assessment; and the nature of qualifications in higher education.)

3. The extent to which teaching quality varies between different disciplines and institutions (and types of institution); how quality of teaching has been, and is likely to be, affected by the continuing increase in participation in higher education; the impact (benefits/drawbacks) of employing graduate and undergraduate students in teaching; and how developments such as the new Institute for Learning and Teaching might improve teaching quality.

4. Institutional arrangements, and their contribution to the quality of the teaching and learning experience. For instance: the balance between research and teaching; 'traditional' universities as opposed to 'non-traditional'; HE outside universities.

5. How does the way in which funding is allocated to higher education affect the nature of teaching and learning? What is, and what should be, the role of the Higher Education Funding Council for England in this respect?

6. How do different modes of attendance affect the quality of the teaching and learning experience (eg full-time, part-time, distance learning via ICT and other forms of flexible learning, including credit-based systems)?

7. The effect of changing patterns of student support and student income on the quality of learning (loans, fees, the continuing increase in the time students spend in employment—part-time jobs—during courses).

8. How accountable are universities for the quality of the student learning experience? How will it change as students become more demanding?

9. To what extent are universities involved with their local communities? Would more work in this area have an impact on the nature of the student experience?


  7. The Education Sub-committee's intention to undertake an inquiry into higher education was originally announced in July 1999.[5] Detailed terms of reference were published in October 1999 [see Box 1].[6] The Education Sub-committee announced on 21 December 2000 that it would be continuing its inquiry into higher education with an examination of student retention, considering three specific aspects of higher education which affect student retention:

  • Aspects of the student experience which affect retention. For example, financial considerations, the amount of paid work undertaken by students during term­time, the nature of the curriculum and qualification structures.

  • Quality of teaching as it relates to student retention. For example, the appropriate level of academic support for students, the quality of teaching, how the relationship between teaching and research affects student retention, factors which affect the recruitment of highly qualified teachers in higher education.

  • Aspects of the current debate on higher education funding which are relevant to student retention.[7]

8. Five distinguished specialist advisers were appointed to assist the Sub-committee: Professor Janet Beer of Manchester Metropolitan University, Professor Davina Cooper of Keele University, Dr Eilis Ferran of St Catharine's College, Cambridge, Professor Alan Smithers of the University of Liverpool and Professor Sir William Taylor CBE. We are grateful to our advisers and to all those who have given evidence in this inquiry, whether orally or in writing. Our advisers invited a small number of students to a most useful private seminar which the Sub-committee held at Westminster on 14 November 2000. We have also drawn upon the visits by the Education Sub-committee to the United States in October 2000, to Guildford and Kingston in January 2001 and to Manchester in February 2001.


  9. It is not long since the great majority of students entered higher education at the age of 18 straight from school or further education, studied continuously and full­time for either three or four years, were assessed at only a limited number of points during their courses, and at the 'finals' stage were examined by means of unseen written papers and laboratory and field tests in what amounted to a rite de passage for employment or post­graduate study. Few 'dropped out' for either academic or personal reasons. For those who did so there was little hope of receiving subsequent credit for studies completed before their departure. Few failed their finals. Today the picture is very different. A large proportion of students are categorised as 'mature', being over the age of 21 at point of entry. Many have already experienced periods of full­time employment. The distinction between full- and part-time study has been eroded, by many students undertaking paid work during term time, some because they can hardly survive without the money, others to sustain a desired life­style.

10. Baroness Blackstone, the Minister for Higher Education, described the Prime Minister's target[8] of increasing participation in higher education so that 50 per cent of those between the ages of 18 and 30 should have the opportunity to benefit from higher education by the end of the decade as "a sensible, reasonable aspiration" which could be achieved over the next five to seven years.[9] According to the latest DfEE Departmental Report, the current data on participation indicate that a young person has a roughly 50 per cent chance of entering higher education— either full-time or part-time—in their lifetime.[10]

11. According to Mr Peter Robinson and Ms Wendy Piatt,[11] some analysts had questioned the labour market rationale for any further expansion in higher education enrolment during the first decade of this century. The University of Warwick study of 1995, quoted in Report 7 of the Dearing Review, forecast that growth in employer demand would not catch up with the growth

Table 1: Non-completion rates[12] and student numbers[13] since 1982

Rate of "wastage"/ "drop-out"/non-completion (per cent)
Total number of full-time undergraduates (thousands)
Total number of part-time undergraduates (thousands)
Great Britain figures:
United Kingdom figures:

in graduate supply until the second decade of the twenty-first century.[14] Mr Robinson and Ms Piatt argued that the lack of a clear labour market rationale for further expansion appeared to be echoed by industry, or, at least, expansion per se did not appear to be considered a priority by employers.[15]

12. Undergraduate numbers have risen substantially over the past twenty years. The limitations of the data prevent an exact analysis of the trend in non-completion over the period, but in general terms it can be said that about one in six students who enter higher education leave without completing their degree (see Table 1). In their April 2000 oral evidence the Committee of Vice-Chancellors and Principals told the Education Sub-committee that the UK had one of the very lowest 'drop­out' rates in any higher education system anywhere in the world. They also said that the average national figure for non-completion had not changed significantly throughout the period of expansion in higher education over the past 30 years.[16] Baroness Blackstone told the Sub-committee that the most recent figure for non-completion was just over 17 per cent, which was a small reduction over previous years.[17]

13. The use of words such as 'wastage' or 'drop-out' is unhelpful, as a student may return to higher education at a later stage. Professor Geoffrey Copland, Vice-Chancellor of the University of Westminster, told the Sub­committee he saw a change to the pattern of student behaviour, with some students taking time away from their higher education, and returning at a later date.[18] HEFCE's performance indicators show that approximately 20 per cent of the 1996-97 first degree cohort who did not continue immediately into their second year of higher education resumed their studies after one year out. Approximately 9 per cent resumed their studies at a different institution.[19] Furthermore, even if students decide that higher education is not for them, it is still important that they should have had the chance to experience for themselves what higher education has to offer. In this Report we examine the various reasons for non-completion, and we consider what strategies should be adopted to reduce, where possible, the rate of non-completion. We are firmly in favour of widening access to higher education in order to create the opportunities for students of all backgrounds to set themselves against the challenges which it offers. We recommend two strategies to tackle the problem of non retention. First, seeking to reduce the numbers not continuing with their course and, secondly seeking to reduce the disadvantages of non-continuation by enhancing the 'portability' of acquired attainment below final degree result.

14. Improving retention is important, but it should not lead to a diminution of the challenge of successful completion. Our concern is to address the barriers which prevent students from benefiting from higher education, not to lower its standards. Sir Howard Newby, the President of Universities UK and Chief Executive-designate of the Higher Education Funding Council for England, suggested that to some extent non-completion was a consequence of taking "risks" at the admissions stage:

    "as the sector has expanded over the last couple of decades, and as we have taken in more students with a much wider range of social backgrounds and academic qualifications, universities have taken more risks at admission, I think it is right they should do so but if we have not dropped our standards—and I do not believe we have—then the outcome is likely to be some gentle rise, as you put it, in drop-out rates".[20]

 Universities and colleges must be careful not to accept candidates with no chance of successfully obtaining any credit for their higher education study. Proper advice at the admissions stage should be available for all students, including those who apply to their local institution and those who enter via clearing. We do not agree with the view that widening access and/or improving retention need lead to lower standards in higher education.

15. We concur with Baroness Blackstone in rejecting the view that widening access automatically leads to an increase in non-completion rates:

    "I do not see why it should ... there are a huge number of potential students who in the past have not had access to higher education for a whole variety of reasons, but these are students who have the ability to not only do well on a course but to enjoy the course and to complete it".[21]

There are different interpretations to be found here, as was acknowledged in the oral evidence given by Baroness Blackstone to the Sub-Committee on 17 April 2000:

    "Moreover, although the drop­out rate has gone up a little bit, it has gone up by a very tiny amount. I think part of that small increase may relate to widening participation and access, taking in some rather more marginal students than was the case in the past as a result of expansion. At the same time I think we should do that and give people a chance and work to keep them there but a few of them will fall through the net".[22]

16. There is a significant human cost, which is difficult to quantify, associated with leaving higher education without a degree. As Sir Howard Newby put it:

    "it is usually—not always but usually—something of a setback, if not a tragedy, for the student personally".[23]

For some, non-completion may be a rational choice to avoid inevitable failure to reach the standards required in examinations or other kinds of assessment. For others, leaving without a degree may be a consequence of failing to pass the necessary tests to continue into the next stage of the degree course. Yet others will leave higher education for reasons quite unconnected with their intellectual ability, such as family or financial difficulties, or the onset of medical conditions.[24] Any of these students may return successfully to higher education in later life if their circumstances change for the better or if they find a course of study that better suits their talents. It is important that students should be able to return. However, if withdrawal from Higher Education is less of a setback due to the increased portability of sub-degree attainments it may well cause a consequent rise in recorded non-completion rates. This needs to be recognized otherwise there is a danger of becoming misled by raw figures on non-completion.

17. The Higher Education Funding Council for England told the Education Sub-committee that some level of non-completion was inevitable, perhaps even desirable.[25] Universities UK[26] argued that non-completion was a problem which could be minimised, but not completely abolished, as there would always be some people who wanted to change direction.[27] Baroness Blackstone told the Sub-committee:

    "The Government felt it had enough evidence to ask the Funding Council to have a look at ways in which we could narrow the disparity that does seem to exist between the best performing institutions and the least well performing institutions. I think that is a very reasonable thing for the Government to do in order that we can reduce the amount of drop-out. Whilst the United Kingdom has a pretty good record in this respect—I think we have the second highest level of retention across the OECD countries at 83 per cent—for the 17 per cent who do not get through that may represent very considerable personal failure and it is something that we should try to work on and make sure it does not increase and, if possible, we can try to reduce it a bit".[28]

18. The 29 November 2000 letter of guidance to Sir Michael Checkland, the Chairman of the Higher Education Funding Council for England (HEFCE), from the Secretary of State for Education and Employment set out his key priorities for higher education in the context of higher education funding for 2001-02 and beyond. The Secretary of State stated that widening participation was his main priority and that he expected to see HEFCE "bear down" on the rate of 'drop-out':

    "Notwithstanding progress on recruitment, institutions should focus on retaining students, particularly those from disadvantaged backgrounds. Widening access to higher education must not lead to an increase in the number of people who fail to complete their courses. I therefore expect to see the Council bear down on the rate of 'drop-out'. The evidence shows there are unacceptable variations in the rate of 'drop-out' which appear to be linked more to the culture and workings of the institution than to the background or nature of the students recruited. It is therefore time for much more substantial work to be done on identifying best practice and bringing pressure to bear on those institutions whose performance falls significantly below their benchmark. I want to see within the next few months a report on a programme of work and action plan developed by the Council in conjunction with institutions".[29]

19. In his letter to HEFCE, the Secretary of State described higher education as "one of the main drivers of national prosperity"[30] and referred to his speech at the University of Greenwich in which he had said that "higher education is now at the heart of the productive capacity of the new economy and the prosperity of our democracy".[31] The effectiveness of national investment of resources in higher education is weakened by levels of non-completion which are unrelated to the individual's potential to make a future contribution to the prosperity of the country.

20. Withdrawal from higher education may result from the student lacking the necessary skills to manage a course of study at that level. It should not be the role of higher education institutions to provide remedial secondary education, although there is considerable scope for better understanding between higher education institutions and the schools and further education colleges on how to equip potential students to meet the challenges of higher education.

21. Student retention matters because of the need to make effective use of the country's talents and resources. Promoting value for money in higher education is an imperative in terms of both public and private investment, including individuals' time as well as taxpayers' money. Student retention is particularly important in terms of the widening participation agenda. As Mr John Randall, the Chief Executive of the Quality Assurance Agency, told the Sub-committee:

    "if a person from a group that is currently under-represented in higher education has an experience that they would characterise as one of rejection and failure, then that is going to spread amongst other members of their peer group (be it a social-class based group or an ethnically based group), that will do damage to any strategy of widening participation from

    able people who are not currently represented or who are disproportionately under-represented".[32]

If the student enters higher education properly equipped and prepared to benefit from the student experience, the chances of a successful outcome are greatly enhanced.

1  HC 205, paragraph 5. Back

2  HC 205, paragraph 8. Back

3  Appendix 16, paragraph 3. Back

4  Universities UK, New Directions in Higher Education Funding-Funding options review group final report, March 2001, paragraph 4.11. Back

5  Education and Employment Select Committee Press Notice 37 of 1998-99, 28 July 1999. Back

6  Education and Employment Select Committee Press Notice 41 of 1998-99, 28 October 1999. Back

7  Education and Employment Select Committee Press Notice 3 of 2000-01, 21 December 2000. Back

8  Announced at the Labour Party Conference in Bournemouth on 28 September 1999 and re-stated in the Prime Minister's speech at the Highlands School in London on 8 February 2001. Back

9  Q. 461. Baroness Blackstone pointed out that the current figures are that about 35 per cent of school leavers, and around 44 per cent of young people under 30, go into higher education. Back

10  DfEE Departmental Report 2000, The Government's Expenditure Plans 2000-01 to 2001-02, Cm 4602, April 2000, page 117. Back

11  Peter Robinson and Wendy Piatt, The Foundation Degree and the Expansion of Higher Education: paper presented at the IPPR seminar on the Foundation Degree, November 2000. Back

12  Figures for 1982/83 to 1990/91 are taken from the DfEE Departmental Report 1993, The Government's Expenditure Plans 1993-94 to 1995-96, Cm 2210, February 1993, page 41, Table 26 based on Universities Statistical Record leavers and enrolment records, rounded to nearest whole figure. The figures are a weighted average of UK universities and English and Welsh polytechnics based on graduate numbers, thus excluding first degree students in other UK HE institutions. The date reflect 'wastage' rate throughout the whole length of the course rather than in one year. The rate for each academic year reflects the progression of all students in just that one year. Figures for 1991/92 to 1995/96 are taken from the DfEE Departmental Report 1998, The Government's Expenditure Plans 1998-99, Cm 3910, April 1998, page 68, Table 2.11 based on Universities Statistical Record leavers and enrolment records, DfEE FESR, England (1990/91 to 1994/95), Higher Education Statistics Agency. The institutional coverage is limited to the former UFC universities and former polytechnics in England. The rate is a weighted sum of the separate university and former polytechnic figures based upon graduate numbers. The calculation for the polytechnic 'drop-out' rate is necessarily approximate because of significant limitations in the underlying data. In practice it has been necessary to estimate 'drop-out' in 1991/92 to 1995/96 from the change in two successive years for a sample of around half of the 29 English former polytechnics. For 1993/94 to 1995/96 a range is given because the introduction of a new data source made it difficult to measure 'drop-out' accurately. The figure for 1996/97 is from the DfEE Departmental Report 2000,The Government's Expenditure Plans 2000-01 to 2001-02, Cm 4602, April 2000, page 111, Table 13.2 based on HEFCE performance indicators. These figures are based on a different methodology, different coverage and different definitions from the "drop-out" rates given in previous Departmental Reports and are therefore not comparable. The figure for 1997/98 is from the latest HEFCE Performance indicators in higher education in the UK 1997-98, 1998-99, Table 6 Sector projected outcomes - obtain no qualification, HEFCE 00/40 page 13. Back

13  Figures supplied by House of Commons Library for GB up to 1993/94, UK thereafter. GB figures include HE in HEIs and HE in FEIs, whereas the UK figures cover only HE in HEIs. Part­time numbers exclude dormant modes, those writing up at home and on sabbaticals from 1994/95. Sources: DFE Statistical Bulletin 13/94 and earlier equivalents; Education statistics for the UK 1995, DfEE HESA statistical first release SFR38 (2000) and earlier editions. Back

14  Review of the Economy and Employment: Future Employment Prospects for the Highly Qualified, Institute for Employment Research, Warwick University, December 1995; cited in Report 7 of the National Committee of Inquiry into Higher Education (The Dearing Report, 1997), The contribution of graduates to the economy: rates of return, James Steel and Colin Sausman, Department for Education and Employment Analytical Services. Back

15  Robinson and Piatt referred to a CBI survey asking whether higher education should aim to provide better quality rather than continue to expand, to which most respondents asserted that existing provision should be improved:

Strongly agree
Tend to agree
Tend to disagree
Strongly disagree
Higher education should aim to provide better quality rather than expanding further?

Source: CBI 2000 Response to the Foundation Degree consultation paperBack

16  See Fourth Report from the Education and Employment Committee, Session 2000-01, Higher Education: Access, HC 205, Q. 125. Back

17  Q. 490. Back

18  Q. 277. Back

19  HEFCE, Performance indicators in higher education in the UK, 2000, Table T4. Back

20  Q. 166. Back

21  Q. 455. Back

22  HC 205, Q. 286. Back

23  Q. 166. Back

24  Appendix 12. Back

25  Ev.p.109, paragraph 5. Back

26  Formerly known as the CVCP-Committee of Vice-Chancellors and Principals. Back

27  Appendix 13, paragraph 2. Back

28  Q. 464. Back

29  Appendix 17, paragraph 11. Back

30  Appendix 17, paragraph 1. Back

31  Speech by the Rt Hon. David Blunkett MP, Secretary of State for Education and Employment, Modernising Higher Education-Facing the Global Challenge, at the University of Greenwich, 15 February 2000; Appendix 17, para 1. Back

32  Q. 121. Back

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