Select Committee on Education and Employment Sixth Report


30. In this section of the Report we consider the factors which contribute to students' decisions to withdraw from their higher education studies. It is clear that non-completion is rarely determined by a single cause. Several witnesses testified to the range of factors, often inter-linked, which contributed to students' decisions to withdraw from higher education. Research for HEFCE concluded that non-completion was a "complex process that normally could not be explained by any single factor".[45] HEFCE told the Sub-committee that it had undertaken research to link a range of student data to determine the extent and cause of non-completion. The still un-completed research had initially identified three factors which stood out as major associated factors of non-completion:

  • entry qualifications (entrants with weak entry qualifications are less likely to complete);
  • subjects (e.g. engineering has a high non-completion rate);
  • age (mature students are less likely to complete).[46]

31. Professor Mantz Yorke suggested that six factors accounted for the reasons cited by full-time and sandwich students who had decided to withdraw from their course:

  • poor quality of the student experience;
  • inability to cope with the demands of the higher education programme;
  • unhappiness with the social environment;
  • wrong choice of programme;
  • matters related to financial need;
  • dissatisfaction with aspects of institutional provision.[47]


  32. Several of the Sub-committee's witnesses argued that a major cause of non-completion was the mis-match between students' expectations of higher education and their actual experiences when studying. Professor Geoff Peters, Pro Vice-Chancellor of the Open University, said that an initial mismatch between students' expectations of the subject they have chosen, the qualification they are pursing and the institution to which they have been admitted could contribute to a decision to withdraw.[48]

33. MORI's survey for UNITE found that students considered that the higher education course was the most important factor when deciding on which higher education institution to attend.[49] Prospectuses play a key role in providing information about choice of higher education, along with other information on the internet and sources such as family, friends and school/college staff.[50]

34. A number of witnesses suggested that better quality information to applicants would help ensure more realistic expectations.[51]


  35. The present system of 'clearing' applications to higher education institutions after the publication of A Level results in the summer involves "an awful lot of scurrying around"[52] in which it is difficult both for the student and the institution to make properly considered decisions. In Sir Howard Newby's view, most university Vice-Chancellors would favour post-qualification applications.[53] Professor Diana Green, Vice-Chancellor of Sheffield Hallam University, identified students who entered through 'clearing' as more at risk because they would not be in 'clearing' if they had achieved the necessary grades to get into the institution or course of their choice.[54] On the other hand, Professor Green said that she had been impressed over the last few years by how much more focussed applicants were becoming in applying clear criteria to making a choice between the options open to them through the 'clearing' system.[55] Professor Geoffrey Copland cited the information on the Quality Assurance Agency website on the comparative performance of departments as one source of information available to applicants during 'clearing' which nowadays helped to ensure fewer poorly informed decisions.[56] In his view there was no significant difference in the performance rate of those who came in through 'clearing' and those who did not.[57] HEFCE did not yet have hard evidence on the extent to which entry through 'clearing' could be linked to risk of non-continuation.[58]


  36. The support that institutions provide for students' academic and welfare needs plays a major factor in determining students' progression. Many witnesses commented that support at the beginning of students' experience of higher education was critical.[59] Professor Geoffrey Copland said that students' lack of preparedness for higher education was a key concern, particularly for students returning to study after a period away from the education system. He suggested that institutions had to help the students manage the transition into higher education rather better than had been the case in the past.[60] Professor Alan Ryan, Warden of New College, Oxford, commented that a lack of resources may force some institutions to sacrifice welfare services in order to preserve teaching and research facilities. He argued that there may be value in allocating funds from the teaching budget to welfare services to support students who may be at risk of withdrawing for non-academic reasons.[61]

37. NATFHE argued that in many cases institutions recruit a diverse range of students, many of whom had little preparation for higher education, and teach them exactly as traditional, or 'selective' students.[62] Professor Mantz Yorke expressed concern that institutions may not be providing proper induction into higher education:

    "if we have got students coming in from various backgrounds who need to get up to speed, rather than hit the ground stumbling, then I think there is a need to provide an experience that actually inducts them properly into what higher education is about, and I think we may well not be doing that as well as we might".[63]

38. Institutions and their teaching staff should recognise the implications of the fact that a higher proportion of entering students do not now have recent experience of continuous and intensive study. The ability of such students to be self­determining and to organise their studies in productive and satisfying ways should not be assumed. Many institutions already provide induction and support programmes to meet such students' needs. It is important that these should not be seen as one­offs or add­ons. Appropriate styles of teaching, learning and assessment should be employed at each stage of students' programmes and permeate every aspect of the courses for which they enrol.


  39. In December 2000 the DfEE published a major survey it had commissioned on student finances.[64] The survey considered the income, expenditure, savings and debt of students attending UK higher education institutions. The impact of the abolition of maintenance grants and their replacement with student loans could not be assessed because fieldwork for the research was conducted before this change took place. The Changing Student Finances survey found that students in 1998/99 had more money at their disposal in real terms than in 1988/89, although much more of this was borrowed or earned.[65] One in five students whose parents were assessed to make a contribution towards tuition fees received less than the assessed amount (the average shortfall was £579).[66] The 1999 NUS Student Hardship Survey found that such "students tended to finance fees through funds intended exclusively for maintenance provision (i.e. student loan or maintenance grant)".[67] The mean income including grants and student loans and other commercial loans of full-time students was £5,892[68] and their mean expenditure was £5,710.[69] Average expenditure on essentials, including accommodation, food, course-related expenditure and spending on children, all fell in real terms between 1995/96 and 1998/99.[70] The survey found that there were practically no differences between full-time students and under-30 year olds in the general population in terms of the proportion of total expenditure devoted to entertainment.[71]

40. The 1999 NUS survey found that the average maintenance package for a student living away from home (outside London) was £3549 per year, average accommodation costs were £44.98 per week, leaving the student with £23.10 per week to pay for bills, food, clothes, books and travel. In the same year the Jobseeker's Allowance paid £39.85 per week, in addition to providing housing benefit.[72]

41. In January 2001 MORI published a report sponsored by UNITE on aspects of student life. The Student Living survey found that students' current debt levels were, on average, £3,326, and students predicted this figure would rise to £7,026 by the end of their studies. Students living at home predicted total end of course debt of £5,928. Social class appeared to make no significant difference to students' current debt levels, but students from social classes A and B anticipated end of course debts levels £1,000 less than students from social classes C1, C2, D and E. Similarly, privately educated students anticipated lower overall levels of debt than their counterparts from state-funded schools.[73] MORI found that the proportions of students worried about debt and of those not worried about the level of debt they would incur was the same at 36 per cent. Students expressing most concern were from social groups C1, C2, D and E and those undertaking sub-degree courses. Students who attended state-funded schools were more likely to be worried about debts (39 per cent) than students educated at private schools (23 per cent).[74]

42. This perception of debt appears to have a more significant impact on those from poorer socio-economic backgrounds. Baroness Blackstone argued:

    "I think students have always had these perceptions and they have always felt that they have to manage on a relatively small amount of money. It is true and it has always been true, but the whole point of the student support scheme is to provide students with enough to live on during the period in which they are students ... I know of no evidence to suggest that more students have dropped out as a result of the changes in the student support system that we have introduced".[75]

Universities UK told us perceptions of debt are critical to students' decisions to enter and remain in higher education.[76] This may be particularly so for students from poorer backgrounds and those without a tradition of higher education in their families. Following the Sub-committee's visit to Manchester, Ms Samantha McCormick informed the Sub-committee of a summary of research she had done examining the needs of students from non-traditional backgrounds.[77] The DfEE Changing Student Finances survey states the main reason given for not taking out a loan, other than not needing the extra money, was debt aversion, found particularly among the lowest social classes and women.[78]

43. A number of witnesses commented on the impact of students' financial situation. Professor Claire Callender, one of the authors of the Changing Student Finances survey, said that there were certain groups of students who experienced very severe financial hardship.[79] The survey found that one in ten of both full- and part-time students had thought about dropping out for financial reasons.[80] Professor Mantz Yorke agreed that the abolition of the student grant would make it more likely that students from lower socio-economic groups would cite financial reasons as the cause of non-completion.[81] Sir Howard Newby argued that there are some students who suffer financial hardship as they lack parental or other forms of financial support, but others had high levels of debt because they were supporting a certain lifestyle.[82]

44. Professor Diana Green told the Sub-committee that the number of student exclusions for debt from her university had increased by 17 per cent between 1997 and 1999.[83] Professor Peter Knight, Vice-Chancellor of the University of Central England, told the HEFCE 2001 annual meeting that he estimated that several thousand students were not completing their higher education courses because they could not pay their fees. The basis for this estimate needs to be confirmed. A total of 197 students had been excluded from his university last year.[84]

45. Students who withdraw or consider doing so frequently cite the influence of financial difficulties. The NUS Student Hardship Survey (1999) showed that a third of full-time undergraduates had considered dropping out of studies at least occasionally. Over 34 per cent of these students cited financial difficulties as a major factor.[85] The Coalition of Modern Universities told us "there is no doubt that financial problems concern many students. They may be the direct cause of withdrawal or they may be a contributory factor in a complex set of issues. In one university, a small scale survey showed that 72 per cent of those giving reasons for withdrawal in 1999/2000 referred to financial difficulties, compared with 45 per cent in 1996/7".[86] The Association of University Teachers said that in their view "student poverty has a direct and sometimes decisive impact on student learning. Indeed, this is currently by far the most common source of the concerns expressed by our members. They increasingly comment on the difficulties experienced by students who are forced to work long hours in part time jobs during term time in order to make ends meet ¼ there may be a number of reasons for the recent increase in non-completion rates in higher education, but almost every lecturer seems to know of individual examples of students failing to complete courses for financial reasons".[87]

46. During the Sub-committee's visit to Manchester, welfare officers said that the biggest non-completion rate that they saw was from stress mainly due to financial pressure. The DfEE student income and expenditure survey also highlighted financial difficulties as having been cited most often by all students who have considered dropping out.[88] Mr Bahram Bekhradnia, HEFCE's Director of Policy, told the Education Sub-committee that on the basis of HEFCE analyses, non-completion could be accounted for to a large extent by reference to academic factors, with financial support perhaps a second order consideration.[89] However, HEFCE suggested that on the basis of socio-economic data alone, non-continuation was a far greater problem for students from poorer backgrounds (see Table 2). HEFCE concluded tentatively that non-completion was "substantially and predominantly" associated with academic factors, although financial concerns may also play a part.[90] However, the DfEE Student Income and Expenditure Survey highlighted the financial difficulties as a key motivation for those students considering withdrawing: "financial reasons were cited most often by all students".[91]


  47. MORI found that 30 per cent of students had worked part-time in paid employment during their studies. The majority of those students who had worked thought this had an adverse effect on their academic studies.[92] The Changing Student Finances survey found that 46 per cent of all students had jobs during term time, working an average of 11 hours a week.[93] In this survey 10 per cent of full-time and more than 25 per cent of part-time students believed that working had beneficial effects because of its relevance to their studies.[94] The survey also found that since 1995/96, the number of hours worked by students from social classes I and II decreased by 9 per cent, but increased by 15 per cent among students from social classes IV and V.[95] The National Union of Students told the Sub-committee that it recognised the need to work during term­time, but recommended a limit of 10­12 hours per week.[96] They argued that pressure from term-time work often led to an inability to fulfil academic commitments, which in turn contributed to students' decisions to withdraw from their studies.[97] Universities UK has commissioned research into the impact of term-time work on students' learning, considering both benefits and adverse effects.[98] The current system can pressurize students to work during the most testing year of their academic studies.

48. The Student Retention Project at Napier University found twenty student characteristics that had some influence on students' decisions on continuing their higher education after the first year of study. The most successful students were working in paid employment for up to 10 hours per week, the least successful over 16 hours a week.[99] Skill: the National Bureau for Students with Disabilities, noted that many disabled students are unable to work during term-time because of their impairment or because the current employment environment excludes them.[100] Mrs Ann Barlow, the Learning Support Co-ordinator at Manchester Metropolitan University, told the Sub-committee that many disabled students faced considerable delays and uncertainty in receiving financial support from the Disabled Students Allowance. This was because most local education authorities did not arrange the assessment of disabled students' needs until after enrolment. Consequently, this support was not available until the course was well under way.[101]

49. We recommend that higher education institutions should provide guidance to their students that they should not work in paid employment for more than 12 hours a week during term time.[102] However, the Committee recognises that seeking to reduce non-completion by preventing students from working longer hours, if they are doing so in order to fund their living costs, may be self-defeating unless access to financial support for less well off students were improved.

45  HEFCE, Undergraduate non-completion in higher education in England, 1997. Executive summary, paragraph 6. Back

46  Ev.p.109, paragraph 10. Back

47  Mantz Yorke, Leaving early: undergraduate non-completion in higher education, 1999, p. 39. Back

48  Q. 226. Back

49  MORI Student Living Report, UNITE, 2001, p. 8. Back

50  MORI Student Living Report, UNITE, 2001, p. 9. Back

51  See, for example, Ms Dorma Urwin Q. 67, Mr John Randall Q. 121, and Sir Howard Newby Q. 168. See also Ev.p.35, paragraph 20. Back

52  Q. 182. Back

53  Q. 181. Back

54  Q. 245. Back

55  Q. 245. Back

56  Q. 246. Back

57  Q. 246. Back

58  Q. 437. Back

59  For example, Professor Mantz Yorke Q. 30, Professor Michael Wright Q. 69, Mr John Randall Q. 122, Professor Geoffrey Copland Q. 232. Back

60  Q. 226. Back

61  Appendix 12. Back

62  Appendix 15, paragraph 6. Back

63  Q. 7. Back

64  DfEE, Changing Student Finances: Income, expenditure and the take-up of student loans among full and part-time higher education students in 1998/9, 2000. Cited hereafter as Changing Student FinancesBack

65  Changing Student Finances, paragraph 2.3.3. Back

66  Changing Student Finances, p. xv. Back

67  Ev.p.93. Back

68  Changing Student Finances, page xiii. Back

69  Changing Student Finances, page xiv. Back

70  Changing Student Finances, page xiv. Back

71  Changing Student Finances, page xv. Back

72  National Union of Students, Student Hardship Survey, 1999, p.5. Back

73  MORI Student Living Report, UNITE, 2001, p. 15. Back

74  MORI Student Living Report, UNITE, 2001, p. 17. Back

75  Q. 490. Back

76  Appendix 13. Back

77  Appendix 35. Back

78  Changing Student Finances, p. xix. Back

79  Q. 365. Back

80  Changing Student Finances, page xvii. Back

81  Q. 13. Back

82  Q. 198. Back

83  Q. 279. Back

84  The Guardian, 30 January 2001. Back

85  National Union of Students, Student Hardship Survey, 1999. Back

86  Appendix 23, paragraph 5. Back

87  Appendix 16. Back

88  Changing Student Finances, p. 275. Back

89  Q. 444. See also HEFCE, Undergraduate non­completion in higher education in England, 1997, page 54. Back

90  Ev.p.111, paragraph 15. Back

91  Changing Student Finances, p. 275. Back

92   MORI Student Living Report, UNITE, 2001, p. 14. Back

93  Changing Student Finances, paragraph 4.2. Back

94  Changing Student Finances, p. xxiii. Back

95  Changing Student Finances, paragraph 4.2.4. Back

96  Ev.p.94, paragraph 21. Back

97  Ev.p.94. Back

98  Appendix 13, paragraph 11. Back

99  Appendix 20, paragraph 2.5. Back

100  Appendix 26, paragraph 2.1. Back

101  See Appendix 34, paragraph 4. Back

102  See paragraph 47 above. Back

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