TRENDS AND ISSUES
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
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.
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-timein their lifetime.
11. According to Mr Peter Robinson and Ms Wendy Piatt,
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
and student numbers
|AcademicYear||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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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 standardsand I do not believe we havethen the
outcome is likely to be some gentle rise, as you put it, in drop-out
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
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
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:
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".
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 usuallynot
always but usuallysomething of a setback, if not a tragedy,
for the student personally".
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.
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.
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.
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 respectI think we have the second highest
level of retention across the OECD countries at 83 per centfor
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".
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':
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".
19. In his letter to HEFCE, the Secretary of State
described higher education as "one of the main drivers of
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".
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
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
able people who are not currently
represented or who are disproportionately under-represented".
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.