Select Committee on Education and Employment Sixth Report


SECTION 2: HOW SIGNIFICANT IS THE PROBLEM?

INTERNATIONAL COMPARISONS

  22. During its inquiry the Education Sub-committee was concerned to establish the scale of non-completion in higher education. The Sub-committee was told that the UK higher education institutions were, by comparison with other countries, doing a good job at ensuring students made sufficient progress to obtain a higher education qualification.[33] HEFCE noted that among the other major industrialised countries only Japan at 90 per cent had a higher completion rate than the UK. Rates were much lower in France (55 per cent), Germany (72 per cent) and United States (63 per cent).[34] Despite this record of low non-continuation rates, there is evidence that there has been an increase in the number of students who do not complete their studies (see Table 1).

COST OF NON-COMPLETION

  23. The human cost of not completing higher education can be significant, in both emotional and financial terms. There is also a cost to the public purse. Research for HEFCE in 1997 calculated the estimated the cost of non­completion to be of the order of £91 million per year.[35] This was an 'order of magnitude' estimate based on data for 1994-95 with a withdrawal rate averaged across all student cohorts of approximately 5 per cent. Professor Mantz Yorke, of Liverpool John Moores University, who led the research for HEFCE in 1997, estimated that a more up-to-date calculation of the cost of non-completion, based on a more complete data set, was in the region of £200 million.[36]

24. We recognise that the UK has a strong record in the proportion of students who complete their higher education and achieve a qualification at the end of their studies. This is a matter in which the higher education sector should take considerable pride. Nevertheless, we look to the Government, HEFCE and to higher education institutions to take action to reduce as far as possible the number of students who do not achieve a recognised qualification.

25. In the United Kingdom there is a greater deterrent to non-continuation because of the lack of portability of attainment below degree level. We should not be complacent about the low rate of non-completion in the United Kingdom compared with other countries, particularly the United States, where leaving a course of higher education after attaining accumulated credits is a more rational and less disastrous occurrence. In view of the relative non-portability of UK sub­degree attainments, simply looking at non-completion rates is not an adequate reflection of the extent of personal distress and financial wastage that relatively low rates represent.

NON-CONTINUATION RATES BY SOCIAL CLASS AND ENTRY QUALIFICATIONS

  26. The overall figures in Table 1 on non-continuation rates in recent year mask considerable variation in non-continuation rates by social class and by the level of entry. As Table 2 shows, there is a much higher chance that students from poorer backgrounds will withdraw from higher education by the end of their first year of study. This is a considerable concern, not least because the Government and the higher education sector are committed to widening access for those socio-economic groups who traditionally have not participated in higher education. HEFCE's analysis shows that the differences in non­continuation rates between social classes are maintained across the spectrum of entry qualifications though non-continuation is greater at the lower A Level point range (see Table 2 below). The relationship between social class and non-continuation is not straightforward.

Table 2: Non-continuation following year of entry
by social class and entry qualifications

Social class
All entrants
High
A levels
Mid
A levels
Low
A levels
Not
A level
I
5%
2%
5%
10%
10%
II
6%
3%
6%
11%
11%
IIIn
7%
3%
6%
13%
13%
IIIm
8%
3%
6%
13%
13%
IV and V
9%
3%
7%
13%
13%

Young full-time first degree entrants, 1997-98. Source: HEFCE, Ev. p. 121.

INSTITUTIONAL DIFFERENCES IN NON-CONTINUATION

  27. The performance of institutions in ensuring students make sufficient progress through their course is not uniform across the higher education sector. HEFCE's performance indicators for each higher education institution in the UK included calculations for non-continuation rates. Two indicators were calculated: the proportion of students who do not continue their study at the end of the first year of higher education, and a projection of the final outcomes of cohorts starting courses at an institution.[37] The proportion of first time first degree entrants who were not in higher education following their year of entry ranged from around 20 per cent at the institutions at one end of the scale to less than 1 per cent at the other.[38]

28. The Secretary of State noted in his letter of 29 November 2000 to HEFCE that there were "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".[39] HEFCE has asked its Action on Access team to identify factors which account for this differential performance, with the intention that this information should be disseminated and provide the basis for HEFCE's work with institutions which do not do well.[40] Sir Howard Newby argued that there were no obvious correlations between non-completion rate and factors such as "institution size or whether they are old or new universities or anything of that kind".[41] He told the Sub-committee that non-completion was more likely to be linked to factors which related to individual institutions rather than sector-wide influences.[42] It seems extremely likely that student factors, sector­wide influences and issues that relate to individual institutions all play a part in the question of retention. Government, the sector and the individual institutions, therefore, should each address the factors over which they have control.

SUBJECT DIFFERENCES IN NON-CONTINUATION

  29. Non-completion rates also vary significantly by the subject of study. The Sub-committee was told that professional and vocational courses have lower non-completion rates than other academic disciplines.[43] HEFCE's performance indicators show non-completion rates for young full-time students ranging from 2 per cent (medicine, dentistry and veterinary science) to 11 per cent (engineering and technology).[44]



33  Mr John Randall, Q. 121 and Baroness Blackstone, Q. 464. Back

34  HEFCE Press notice, 6 October 2000. Back

35  HEFCE, Undergraduate non-completion in higher education in England, 1997. Back

36  Q. 3. Back

37  For a technical description of these indicators, see HEFCE Performance indicators in higher education in the UK, 2000, pp 6-8 and Annex B. Back

38  Young full-time first degree entrants, 1997-98. For additional data see HEFCE Performance indicators in higher education in the UK, 2000, Table T3. Back

39  Appendix 17. Back

40  Ev.p.109, paragraph 6. Back

41  Q. 185. Back

42  Q. 185. Back

43  See QQ. 48, 67. Back

44  HEFCE Performance indicators in higher education in the UK, 2000, Table B13. Back


 
previous page contents next page

House of Commons home page Parliament home page House of Lords home page search page enquiries index

© Parliamentary copyright 2001
Prepared 23 March 2001