FURTHER MEMORANDUM FROM THE QUALITY ASSURANCE
AGENCY FOR HIGHER EDUCATION (HE110)
HIGHER EDUCATION: STUDENT RETENTION
1. The Agency welcomes the opportunity to
present evidence on the issue of student retention. The evidence
in this note should be read in the context of the more general
evidence submitted by the Agency in February 2000.
2. Several factors may affect student retention,
including the personal, domestic circumstances of the individual
and the availability of financial support. In this evidence, the
Agency addresses the academic matters, which are within the control
of the Higher Education Institution, that affect student retention.
Whilst institutions can and should deal sympathetically with domestic
or financial difficulties faced by their students, they do not
control these. However, they do control their academic and related
practices, and the Agency is concerned to assess the effectiveness
of such practices in relation to the initial selection of students
and their subsequent progression through their programmes of study.
3. This evidence will consider provision
of information to students to inform their choices of programme
of study, admission procedures, and academic support to students
once they are enrolled. The evidence will describe how the Agency
works with the sector to promote improvement in these areas, and
how it makes judgements on the effectiveness of the resultant
institutional performance. Finally, the evidence deals with the
issues of credit and of disability in which the sub-committee
has expressed a particular interest.
4. Students are far more likely to complete
a programme that meets their needs, expectations and career aspirations
than one that disappoints expectations or appears not to be relevant
to an intended career pathway. There is thus a substantial premium
to be placed upon the intended outcomes of programmes of study
being stated clearly and explicitly.
5. Students will enter Higher Education
for many reasons. In most cases it is likely that a combination
of factors will motivate a person to continue their education
to the highest level. Some will be motivated to pursue knowledge
for its own sake, to the current boundaries of their discipline.
Some will be concerned with the development of the general intellectual
skills that give access to a range of graduate careers. Some will
wish to acquire a highly specific set of competences needed for
entry to a particular profession or other higher level occupation.
For all, higher education should offer a transformational experience
through opportunities for reflection and personal development.
6. The diversity of expectation of those
entering higher education is matched by a rich diversity of provision.
That diversity enables many needs to be met, but it also present
the would-be student with a challenge in identifying those programmes
with outcomes that match most closely their personal expectations.
7. The Agency has been working with the
higher education sector to develop some explicit points of reference
for setting and assessing academic standards. These points of
reference serve also to provide public information that should
be of assistance to prospective students.
8. In January 2001 the Agency is publishing
the National Framework of Higher Education Qualifications. A prime
purpose of the framework is to enable employers, schools, parents,
prospective students and others to understand the achievements
and attributes represented by the main qualification titles. Annexed
to this paper are a brief guide to the framework, and the descriptors
for the main higher education qualifications in England, Wales
and Northern Ireland. (Annex 1) These will be included in publications
and web based information that the Agency will provide to assist
prospective students understand the range of higher education
9. The descriptors do three things. First,
they set out expectations of a student's mastery of their field
of study, and of the conceptual understanding needed to describe
and discuss current problems in that field. Second, the descriptors
state the abilities that the graduate will have developed, for
example, critically to evaluate arguments, assumptions, abstract
concepts and data, to formulate judgements and to identify a range
of solutions to a problem. Lastly, the descriptors relate these
abilities to employment, making it clear that these are qualities
needed not only for academic success, but also as a foundation
for employment that will require the exercise of initiative and
personal responsibility, and the ability to take decisions in
complex and unpredictable situations.
10. The Qualifications Framework describes,
at a fairly high level of generality, the attributes that should
be developed by study to each qualification level within higher
education. These statements of outcome should assist students
in selecting the level of qualification that is appropriate to
their personal aims.
11. The Agency is facilitating the work
of some 42 subject groups who are producing subject benchmark
statements for honours degrees in broadly defined academic subject
areas. Benchmarks are statements which represent general expectations
about standards for the award of qualifications at a given level
in a particular subject area. Benchmarking is not about listing
specific knowledge; that is a matter for institutions in designing
individual programmes. It is about the conceptual framework that
gives a discipline its coherence and identity; about the intellectual
capability and understanding that should be developed through
the study of the discipline to the level in question; the techniques
and skills which are associated with developing understanding
in the discipline; and the intellectual demand and challenge appropriate
to study of the discipline to the level in question. One half
of the subject benchmark statements were published last year,
the remainder will be published later this year. So far, benchmarking
has been undertaken only at the level of the honours degree. In
some subject areas benchmarks will be produced for taught courses
leading to masters degrees (for example the M.Eng) and for some
diplomas in higher education (for example, in nursing).
12. Subject benchmark statements will give
prospective students a good feel for the nature of study of a
particular discipline in higher education. Between them, the descriptors
of the qualifications framework and the subject benchmark statements
will help students identify the field of study and level of qualification
most likely to have broadly defined learning outcomes that match
13. Having decided upon a field of study
and level of qualification, the prospective student needs to identify
those programmes that match most closely their needs and career
aspirations. The outcomes of individual programmes should reflect
the general expectations of the qualifications framework and any
relevant subject benchmark statement. However, there are two further
pieces of information that students will need.
14. First, they will need to know whether
there are specific outcomes that are relevant to career progression.
For example, does a programme seek to develop specific skills
that have particular occupational relevance, either in the local
labour market or more generally? In a subject such as law or computing
students will need to know whether the balance of an individual
programme lies towards the purely academic or the vocational.
If a student is contemplating a career in a regulated profession,
they will need to know whether the programme is recognised by
the relevant professional or statutory body for the purpose of
obtaining an eventual license to practice.
15. Second, they will wish to know something
of the way in which they will learn, so that they may select the
programme that is best suited to their preferred learning style.
They may wish to consider the balance between classroom teaching
and practical classes, between highly structured teaching and
self-directed learning, between face to face tuition and distance
learning, and between accessing information in printed format
or on line. In a system or higher education based upon mass participation,
those entering it will do so with personal learning skills at
different stages of development. A student is most likely to succeed
on a course that is suited to their learning style and is well
matched, in its early stages, to the level and sophistication
of learning skills possessed.
16. All of this information should be set
out by institutions in programme specifications. In a programme
specification a teaching team sets out, clearly and concisely,
the intended learning outcomes of the programme, the teaching
and learning methods that enable learners to achieve these outcomes,
and the assessment methods used to demonstrate achievement. The
Agency has published guidance on programme specifications in its
handbook "Guidelines for preparing programme specifications".
Institutions are already making programme specifications available
on their websites.
17. There is now available a great deal
of information about the general nature of higher education programmes,
and about the specific characteristics of each individual programme.
It is important that higher education institutions do their utmost
to ensure that prospective students, and those who advise them,
are aware of the availability of this information. The first step
to ensuring a high level of student retention is to make sure
that students have a clear understanding of the nature of the
programme on which they are considering embarking, and that they
are confident that it will meet their personal objectives.
18. The assessment by a prospective student
of their own aptitudes and abilities in relation to a programme
of study may be unrealistic. Their understanding of the extent
to which the intended outcomes of a programme match their career
aspirations may be incomplete. Institutions of higher education
have a responsibility to design their admissions policies and
practices so as to secure a good match between the abilities and
aptitudes of the student and the demands of the programme, thus
leading to the selection of applicants who can be expected to
complete their studies successfully. Inappropriate matching of
student to programmes can lead to disappointment and disillusionment
on the part of the student. In turn, that creates the conditions
in which a student is more likely to drop out.
19. The successful outcome that can result
from a good match between applicant and programme is particularly
important when applicants come from sections of the community
that are under represented in higher education. If the experience
of a person from such a group is one of disappointment, frustration
and rejection, that negative experience is likely to have an adverse
influence on others within the peer group or family. Matching
students to the programmes on which they are most likely to succeed
should be a central part of any strategy of widening participation
in higher education.
20. Is is in the interests of higher education
institutions to fill all of their available places. It may be
a counsel of perfection to say that, in the heat of "clearing",
institutions should make a careful assessment of the aptitudes
of each applicant. Nevertheless, institutions should take particular
care in assessing applications from individuals who may have limited
access to advice about higher education, for example some of those
attracted through a widening participation agenda.
21. It is wasteful of public money and damaging
to the self-esteem and personal development of individuals to
enrol students on programmes on which they are unlikely to succeed.
If a person is not yet ready for the demands of a higher education
programme, Access to Higher Education programmes are offered by
Further Education Colleges. The Agency is involved in licensing
the organisations which approve such courses locally. The Agency's
involvement means that the higher education sector is party to
the arrangements for approval of Access courses, and the Access
qualification is acceptable to most universities for entry purposes.
Mature students entering higher education through this route perform
well on all measures of success, including completion rates and
degree classifications gained, thereby demonstrating the benefits
of ensuring that students are properly prepared to embark upon
higher education programmes.
22. The Agency is currently preparing a
draft of a Code of practice on admission, for consultation within
the sector and with a view to publication later this year.
23. Once students are enrolled, they will
need adequate academic support. This is particularly so in the
early stages of a programme, when they may be developing new learning
skills, or using techniques of study for the first time. Particular
attention needs to be given to ensuring that students receive
appropriate guidance in such things as the use of an academic
library, electronic databases and research journals, which they
are unlikely to have encountered previously.
24. There is a need to identify from the
outset, and to provide appropriate support to students who may
have special learning needs, for example arising from dyslexia.
25. Some students may not be fully confident
of their abilities in key skill areas such as communication or
numeracy. If assistance is required to improve such skills, it
should be provided at the very start of a student's time in higher
education. There have been some valuable initiatives in this area.
The Department for Education and Employment partly funded the
production, by De Montfort University, of a workbook called "Improving
Your Learning". This is an introduction to key skills in
higher education that provides a basis for self-assessment by
the student, and action planning for the development of key skills.
The self-assessment enables the university to design learning
materials and workshops to meet student needs, and the emphasis
on personal action planning ensures that the student takes ownership
of what needs to be done.
26. Assessment of student work is of critical
importance in supporting student progress. A range of assessment
techniques should be used to ensure that students have the opportunity
to demonstrate the knowledge, understanding and skills they have
acquired, and to receive feedback on these. Several issues need
to be considered.
27. Summative assessment is essential to
measure achievement. By summative assessment is meant assessment
designed to measure whether the intended learning outcomes of
a programme, or a part of a programme, have been achieved. Formative
assessment is of critical importance to student progression. By
formative assessment is meant assessment that provides feedback
to students on how well they are doing and guidance on how they
could improve their performance.
28. The Agency's reviewers find that a common
complaint from students concerns the inadequacy of feedback they
receive on work submitted for assessment, and delays, sometimes
significant, in providing that feedback. Prompt feedback on assessed
work is of vital importance. If this is not being provided, the
reasons for the failing need to be addressed.
29. One possible reason may be the relative
priority that staff accord to marking student work, particularly
if marks do not count towards an eventual award. Most academic
staff have to balance the different aspects of their jobs, including
teaching, research and contributing to the administrative running
of their department or institution. It is for institutions to
send clear messages to staff about priorities. Feedback from assessment
is essential to support student progression. Heads of Department,
and others in positions of authority should make clear, not lest
by example, the priority that should attach to ensuring students
receive prompt and constructive feedback.
30. A problem may lie in programme design.
It is possible for students to be subject to too much summative
assessment, and for the resultant burden of marking to consume
a disproportionate amount of the time of academic staff. Modularisation
of programmes, and the division of the year into semesters, can
bring many benefits. These include the ability to construct programmes
that reflect the interests of individual students and which permit
flexible patterns of attendance. However, if a programme is broken
down into very small units, each of which requires summative assessment
to contribute to the final award, two problems arise. First, from
the student perspective, the balance between preparing for assessment
and reflecting on learning may become distorted. Second, the burden
of formal marking and moderation may consume a disproportionate
amount of staff time, perhaps at the expense of time that might
otherwise have been devoted to providing formative feedback to
31. Institutions need to recognise the importance
of formative assessment and the need for this to be provided timeously.
Institutions need to send clear messages to staff about the priority
that should be attached to formative assessment, and should ensure
that programme structures do not inadvertently create assessment
burdens that make it harder for the formative functions of assessment
to be discharged properly. A section of the Agency's Code of Practice
deals with assessment, and emphasises the importance of feedback
in promoting learning and facilitating improvement.
32. Institutions need to have in place structured
processes to develop the capacity of individuals to reflect upon
their own learning and achievement, and to plan for their own
educational and career development. There is a lot of valuable
work going on within the higher education sector to facilitate
such structured processes. Much of this takes the form of promoting
personal development planning and encouraging students to maintain
personal progress files. The Agency is working jointly with the
bodies representing higher education institutions to develop guidelines
on such progress files. Bodies representing students and employers
have also contributed to this work. A summary of the current draft
of the guidelines on personal development planning is appended.
33. Taken together, these measures have
significant potential to improve retention rates. In different
ways, they all involve institutions engaging actively with their
students to assist them to develop their capacities for learning
and reflection, and hence improve their chances of completing
successfully their programmes of study.
34. As is explained in the Agency's main
evidence, the Agency is introducing a new method of academic review
of higher education provision. The judgements that will be made
of provision will focus more explicitly on student progression.
35. Reviewers will evaluate student progression
in each subject area by considering recruitment, academic support
and progression within individual programmes. They will assess
whether there is appropriate matching of the abilities of students
recruited to the demands of programme; and whether there are appropriate
arrangements for induction and identification of any special learning
needs. They will assess the effectiveness of academic support
to individuals, including tutorial arrangements and feedback on
progress. They will consider general progression within programmes
as well as non-completion rates.
36. Reviewers will assess the performance
of an institution in supporting student progression in the subject
under review, by judging that it is either failing, approved,
or commendable. If it is found that support for student progression
makes an inadequate contribution to the achievement of the intended
outcomes of the programmes under review, and that significant
improvement is required urgently, there will be a judgement of
"failing". A "failing" judgement in this (or
any other) category will result in the provision as a whole being
deemed to have failed. The normal consequence of a failing judgement
will be that there will be a further review of the provision within
twelve months, and if the failings have not been remedied, the
funding council will consider withdrawal of support from the programme.
37. Where arrangements to support student
progression enable the intended outcomes of the programme to be
achieved, but improvement is needed to overcome weakness, the
provision will be approved, but the areas where improvement is
needed will be set out in the Agency's report.
38. Where arrangements for student progression
contributes substantially to the achievement of the intended outcomes,
with most elements demonstrating good practice, the provision
will be judged as "commendable".
39. In reviewing this aspect of provision,
the Agency's reviewers will ask:
Is there an appropriate overall strategy
for academic support, including written guidance, which is consistent
with the student profile and the overall aims of the provision?
Are there effective arrangements
for admission and induction which are generally understood by
staff and applicants?
How effectively is learning facilitated
by academic guidance, feedback and supervisory arrangements?
Are the arrangements for academic
tutorial support clear and generally understood by staff and students?
40. Reviewers will also meet with students.
The outline agenda for the discussion with students will usually
include the following questions:
What admission and induction procedures
are in operation?
What are the arrangements for academic
Do these arrangements extend to work
experience, placements, study abroad and other off site experiences?
What skills are required? Do they
Do students receive effective support?
41. It will be seen that the review process
addresses the main issues discussed above, and importantly, seeks
a student perception of the effectiveness of the support provided
42. It is understood that the sub-committee
is interested in the role of credit accumulation and credit transfer
schemes in relation to retention.
43. It is likely that there will always
be a proportion of students who circumstances change after they
have embarked upon a programme, such that they may not be able
to continue to the point of gaining the qualification for which
they were aiming. It is important such students should be able
to take with them some recognition of their achievement to the
point at which they leave.
44. Many, but not all, higher education
institutions credit rate elements of their academic programmes.
Credit is an internal currency, a means of measuring volumes of
learning for the purposes of an institution. To an extent, it
is also a wider currency that is shared by institutions which
participate in credit accumulation and transfer schemes. Such
credit schemes may enable a student to return to the same, or
to a linked institution at a later date and to resume their studies.
Inevitably, during any prolonged absence, there will be changes
to programme content and structures. If a student is absent for
a long period of time, the practical value of credit may diminish,
if the learning to which it attests is no longer adequate to allow
progression to a later stage of a programme.
45. Whilst credit is a useful internal currency,
it has little value as an external currency, particularly in relation
to employment. Employers will be interested in qualifications
which attest, on a consistent basis, to a set of attributes and
abilities. The National Committee of Inquiry into Higher Education
(the Dearing Committee) recognised the need for consistently accredited
"stopping off points".
46. The report said:
"There was support in evidence to us for
opportunities for students to gain national recognition for achievement
at a range of levels, rather than a uniform expectation that all
students would aspire to the same qualification, typically a degree.
There is concern that enrolling most students onto degree programmes
as the terminal qualificationrather than offering recognised
stages of achievement along the waycould result in failure
rather than success for many students as higher education expands."
47. The Dearing Committee supported the
development of recognised exit points within a framework of qualifications.
In the course of consultation on the National Framework of Higher
Education Qualifications, the Agency proposed that there should
be three higher education qualification levels below that of the
honours degree. Whilst this number of lower levels was supported
by some professional bodies and employment interests, responses
within the higher education sector favoured two qualification
levels below the honours degree. As will be seen from the qualification
descriptors annexed to this paper, two such qualification levels
were eventually adopted.
48. Universally applicable descriptors of
the broad outcomes that should be associated with qualifications
at these levels enables institutions to offer the "stopping
off points" proposed by the Dearing report. Accrediting stopping
off points on a consistent basis enables institutions to allow
students to leave with a qualification that recognises their achievement.
The internal currency of credit must be converted to an external
currency of qualifications, if it is to be meaningful to employers.
It is important that higher education institutions assess and
accredit achievement in ways that have a currency in the outside
world, as well as within the higher education sector.
49. The Agency publishes a Code of practice
on students with disabilities. This highlights the ways in which
some of the issues about information, admission and progression
might be addressed with the needs of disabled students particularly
in mind. The code consists of a set of precepts, with associated
guidance. A copy of the precepts is annexed to this paper. (Annex
50. HEFCE publish institutional performance
indicators that include data on non-continuation, that is the
number of students who do not complete programmes. Annex 4 comments
on the extent to which this data may be compared with results
from the Agency's subject reviews.
Quality Assurance Agency for Higher Education