Select Committee on Education and Employment Minutes of Evidence




  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 qualifications.

  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 their expectations.

  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 students.

  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. (Annex 2)

  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 support?

    —  Do these arrangements extend to work experience, placements, study abroad and other off site experiences?

    —  What skills are required? Do they enhance employability?

    —  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 to them.


  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 qualification—rather than offering recognised stages of achievement along the way—could result in failure rather than success for many students as higher education expands." (Paragraph 10.30).

  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 3)


  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
January 2001

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