Memorandum from Dr Geoffrey Copland, Coalition
of Modern Universities (HE 130)
The Coalition of Modern Universities (CMU) welcomes
the opportunity to submit evidence to the Select Committee investigation
into issues concerning student retention in higher education.
We strongly support the submission given by Universities UK and
wish to supplement that submission with some specific points derived
from our experiences as the universities that have particular
experience of mature students and those who are targeted by the
recent initiatives to widen participation.
There are many, often interlocking reasons why
students leave degree courses before gaining a degree. These can
be loosely classed as academic, financial, institutional and social.
The evidence given below is based in part on research into the
reasons for non-continuation in one of our member universities
as revealed by follow up questionnaires after they have discontinued
1. It is important to recognise that there
is a progressive move away from the traditional full-time degree
programme, as identified by Universities UK. As financial issues
become more significant, particularly for non-traditional students,
more are taking the opportunity offered by credit-based degree
structures to switch between full and part-time modes of study,
and between employment and study as circumstances dictate. The
greater use of Credit Accumulation and Transfer (CATS) assists
this, with students interrupting study for a period before returning
either to the original institution or another one, carrying academic
credit with them. Also some students use the opportunity to leave
their programme at an intermediate stage, with a Certificate or
Diploma of Higher Education. The National Qualifications Framework,
recently published by the Quality Assurance Agency (QAA), recognises
this pattern and offers a clearly defined structure in which it
can sit. For many of the students who opt for these intermediate
qualifications, this represents an achieved outcome to meet their
needs and should not be regarded as non-retention on degree courses.
Nearly 50 per cent of non-continuing students in one university
were planning to continue study at another institution or to return
to continue at a later date at the original institution.
2. Some students enter higher education
ill prepared for what they will experience. Many lack the necessary
study skills for the independent study required of students. Particular
examples are inadequate academic literacy and numeracy skills.
These problems arise with school leavers as well as mature entrants.
It has always been so, but with increasing pressures on university
resources, there may be less opportunity to identify and give
the necessary individual attention to students lacking those skills
than has been the case in the past. Just as there is now insistence
on HE preparing students for work, so there should be greater
insistence on schools and FE preparing students better for HE.
There are various existing programmes designed to do this, with
HE help and these should be used as exemplars of good practice
for wider use.
3. Some students realise that they have
made the wrong choice of subject or of institution in which to
study it. This is not a new phenomenon, but is becoming more serious
when compounded with the other pressures facing students. The
student may reach the conclusion because of change of career aspiration.
Students may not be receiving adequate career advice at the school
or college level, may be overly influenced by peers and parents
or may not have researched adequately the demands of a subject.
Some of the students for whom this is particularly acute may have
taken a place in UCAS Clearing that had not been properly researched
from the aspects of subject choice or location and style of university.
This happens in all universities.
4. Some students cannot complete programmes
because of academic failure, but the evidence is that this is
often not simply intellectual inadequacy but brought about by
a number of factors, including poor motivation partly arising
from poor decisions as outlined above. This can be exacerbated
by poor study skills leading to poor achievement, in turn resulting
in lower self esteem.
5. 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 had financial
difficulties, compared with 45 per cent in 1996-7. Of these 68
per cent stated that "the need for paid work made study impossible".
There is no doubt that the erosion and removal of maintenance
grant has accelerated this. This appears to be a more significant
factor than tuition fees. Over the period 1996 to 2000 the number
of students taking paid employment has risen from 50 per cent
to 90 per cent and of these many are effectively working full
time, often at night, while studying, in term time and vacations.
This clearly has a serious impact upon the ability of such students
to study effectively. The need to work correlates closely with
socio-economic backgrounds of these students, giving them a double
disadvantage as they often come from families with no tradition
of higher education and who cannot afford to assist them financially.
This also impacts upon these students socially as they find it
hard to make and sustain friendships and a social life within
the university community.
6. Lack of affordable accommodation in many
city centres, particularly in London, is a major factor, with
students moving further out to live but then having to sustain
increased travel costs. Increasing numbers live in the family
home. This often reduces direct costs but, particularly among
the lower socio-economic groups this provides challenges to find
adequate study conditions at home and may exacerbate the tensions
facing the student.
7. The change of financial support arrangements
for students has undoubtedly caused difficulties. Some of these
are more perceived than real but the effect is often the same.
Students report that stories of large and increasing student debt
by the media have influenced them to consider opting out even
though they may not themselves at that stage of debt. Coupled
with full employment, this means that students are more tempted
to take offers of a full time job if offered at the time than
completing studies with the perceived risk of large debt when
8. There is clear evidence that student
fee debt contributes to the financial burdens on students. This
in turn impacts on HEIs who have to enforce collection of fees.
This can lead to students having to be excluded from study because
of unpaid debt to the HEI.
9. The various forms of student hardship
and targeted funds being made available to students by government
are complicated and some in most need do not take advantage of
them, despite the efforts by universities to help them identify
possible sources of support. A more coherent and simpler system
of support for the most economically vulnerable students would
help them, and the universities that have to administer these
funds. The late announcements of some of these funds increase
the difficulty in reaching the target students.
10. There are clear messages coming from
students that they need greater support by their universities,
particularly in the early stages of their academic careers. Students
are often ill prepared for large classes and independent study,
particularly if they are from low aspirational backgrounds as
identified by widening participation initiatives. Post 92 universities
have a much greater proportion of such students than more traditional
11. The decline of unit of resource for
institutions over the last decade has had a major impact upon
the resources available to institutions to provide the level of
support to students on an individual basis that can be key to
student retention and success. This bears most heavily upon post
92 universities which have larger proportions of low participation
12. The funding premium allocated by HEFCE
for low participation neighbourhood students does not meet the
additional cost of the necessary tutorial and study skills support
that a significant number of these students need to establish
themselves in the higher education community. Once established,
and given the high degree of motivation often shown by such students,
they can perform very well. Universities have adopted a number
of strategies to help to overcome initial disadvantages, including
special support for study methods, academic literacy and information
technology and communication (ITC) skills. ITC can pose particular
problems for mature students from the lower socio-economic group
who may well not have ready access to good quality facilities
off campus and may not have had a strong grounding in IT techniques
at earlier stages of their education. This imposes extra costs
on universities to provide additional support and resources to
ensure that these students are not disadvantaged.
13. We have found that these students also
often need initial advice and support to identify all sources
of financial support open to them and to manage their affairs
effectively. There is strong evidence that the availability of
adequate and immediate advice can help to restore confidence in
difficult times, particularly with non-traditional students who
have little opportunity to share their concerns with family and
friends with experience of higher education. Initiatives such
as mentoring, student ambassadors and peer advice help to support
and sustain students who are experiencing transition and confidence
14. These students are crucial to the attainment
of the government's aim for increased participation and experience
shows that they can be highly successful. But early support and
intervention is necessary. The HEFCE funding premium does not
meet the additional costs, particularly when the numbers of students
needing support is not small and marginal. The way that Widening
Participation is funded at present places universities in a "Catch
22" situation. They are encouraged to recruit students from
low participation backgrounds but the premium is inadequate to
support students properly. There is increasing evidence that outreach
schemes that raise students' aspirations, attainment and understanding
of higher education before entry have a positive impact on retention
rates. However when funding is limited, the first obligation of
universities is towards their existing students and there is a
strong inclination to reduce the outreach work that may bring
more students who may have special needs. Short term fire fighting
wins over long term investment in improvement.
Post 92 universities with their larger number
of low participation students and overall smaller resources available
find the cost of support for such students particularly difficult
15. There is strong evidence that an effective
way to help the transition of students into university is to provide
pre-entry contact and advice and strong support during induction
and the first few crucial weeks from both academic and administrative
staff. Students also stress the need for social integration to
help them settle into university. This can be difficult for students
who do not live on campus or in other university accommodation
and who have existing family and social commitments. The diversity
of student age, experience and social experience can be particularly
daunting for those who feel generally insecure. Universities need
to be aware of these issues and try to arrange pre-entry and induction
activities to help establish supportive contacts.
Not all students will complete courses for which
they have enrolled. Causes of non-continuation are complex and
rarely attributable to a single issue. There is evidence that
students who come from non-traditional backgrounds and lower socio-economic
groups are more vulnerable than those who come from backgrounds
with experience of higher education. The more vulnerable students
will respond to carefully structured advice and support and once
established can be very successful.
Financial worries and perceptions of potential
financial burdens can lead to decisions to discontinue. There
are many cases of very severe financial difficulties which are
disabling to students. The complex system of financial support,
bursaries and hardship funds needs to be simplified to support
the best efforts of university staff to provide advice on these
Full-time students are taking on increasing
amounts of paid work to support themselves while studying. This
can have a serious effect upon academic performance.
Students may transfer from full time study to
part-time study, sometimes after a period away from study. They
may transfer to different programmes or institutions using Credit
Students may choose to discontinue to take up
permanent employment, particularly in the light of media stories
of potential high indebtedness.
Universities can help students to succeed through
carefully planned pre-entry and induction programmes, and by providing
support for higher education study skills.
Inadequate career advice prior to entry to higher
education can lead to inappropriate choice of course or institution
which can lead to drop out.
Funding premia to universities for students
who are non-traditional entrants do not meet the cost of properly
structured programmes to provide and adequate transition into
higher education and follow-up support.
Support for study skills and particularly for
ICT use and resources for mature and less well off students is
necessary but expensive.
Student non-completion is a serious matter for
both the student and the university. It is taken seriously but
often needs additional resources to provide adequate support for
Dr Geoffrey Copland
Chair, Coalition of Modern Universities