MEMORANDUM FROM THE HIGHER EDUCATION FUNDING
COUNCIL FOR ENGLAND (HE 137)
1. Following the HEFCE's presentation of
both written and oral evidence to the Select Committee Inquiry
into Higher Education during 2000, additional evidence on the
issue of student retention and non-completion has been requested.
Particular attention has been drawn to the role of performance
indicators in highlighting student retention and non-completion.
2. The National Committee of Inquiry into
higher education recommended that a common system of measuring
aspects of the performance of higher education institutions (HEIs)
should be established. In December 1999, the first report on performance
indicators (PIs) for the period 1996-97 and 1997-98 was published
(HEFCE 99/66), and in October 2000 the second report on performance
indicators for the period 1997-98, 1998-99 was published (HEFCE
00/40). Among the PIs publishd are PIs of non-continuation rates.
3. There are no nationally or internationally
agreed definitions of non-completion, and a wide range of possible
constructions and interpretations exist. However, for the purposes
of the HEFCE PIs, two different methods are used to measure non-completion.
The first is to consider what happens to a student who enters
full-time first degree course at an institution in a particular
year: such students may continue at the same institution, transfer
to another institution or be absent from higher education completely
in the following year. In the latter case the student would be
included in the approximately 10 per cent of entrants to an institution
who do not continue beyond their year of entry [Note that there
is a great difference between the non-continuation rates for mature
students and those for young students. The rate for young students
is eight per cent, whilst the rate for mature students is 15 per
cent]. This is a simple and robust measure of the point when students
are most at risk of "dropping out". The PIs also include
a supplementary table showing the number of students who resume
their studies after a year's absence. This shows that about a
quarter of the students who discontinue resume their studies in
the following year at the same institution or through a transfer.
4. The second method is more complex and
attempts to summarise all the patterns of progression. The indicator
shows what would happen to the cohort of full-time first degree
students starting at an institution in a particular year if they
were to move through the system in the same way as current students.
For example, a student in the first year of a course may then
move on to the second year, repeat the first year (either of the
same course, or of a different course), move to a sub-degree course,
or leave higher education. This method assumes that if 80 per
cent of first year students in an institution currently move on
to the second year, then this same percentage will move on to
the second year in the future. This provides a useful way of summarising
the many different progression routes that are possible and shows
that around 17 per cent of students will leave higher education
without a qualification, while about 80 per cent are expected
to obtain a degree (this is explained more fully in HEFCE 00/40).
5. The question arises whether the presently
observed level of non-completion is high or low, given that some
level of non-completion is inevitable, and perhaps even desirable.
It is impossible to answer this question in an absolute sense.
However, the fact that non-completion appears to have increased
only slightly at a time when the participation rate has increased
so much, and given what we know about the relationship between
non-completion and previous educational attainment (see below),
suggests that the present level of non-completion is not unduly
high. This view is reinforced by what we know about non-completion
overseas (see paragraph 16 below).
6. Non-completion rates vary very considerably
between institutions. However, the benchmarks which we have calculated
to accompany the performance indicators show that the great majority
of these differences can be explained by factors associated with
the nature of an institution's student body and its subject mix
(see paragraph 12 below). Nevertheless, we also know that there
are institutions with similar characteristics which perform differently
with regard to non-completion. We have asked the Action on Access
team to identify what it is that leads some institutions to perform
so much better than others with similar characteristics. We will
then be able to disseminate this information and work with those
institutions which appear to perform less well in order to improve
7. In 1996 the HEFCE commissioned research
by Professor Mantz Yorke and Professor Jenny Ozga to assess the
extent, nature and reasons for non-completion (Yorke, Ozga and
Sukhnandan, 1997). The researchers found that data collected by
the Higher Education Statistics Agency (HESA) were unable to provide
anything other than a very rough estimate of the extent of non-completion,
though, through surveys and interviews of a sample of students
who had left, they were able to identify five broad groups of
reasons for non-completion:
(a) Incompatibility between the student and
their course or institution. When applying to an HEI, students
do not always have sufficient information on the institution or
course. This can lead to difficulties if the academic or social
reality does not meet with the student's expectations.
(b) Lack of preparation for the HE experience.
Some students do not have the self-management skills to live away
from the parental home, or the study skills to cope with HE.
(c) Lack of commitment to the course. Parental
or peer group expectations are often the main reasons a student
applies to HE; obtaining a degree can often be low down on the
list of reasons for applying.
(d) Financial hardship. Such hardship was
frequently cited as an influence on withdrawal, though the researchers
found that this was a supplementary rather than the sole reason.
(e) Poor academic progress.
8. The researchers concluded that non-completion
was a complex process which usually could not be explained by
a single factor.
9. In order to get a better estimate of
the extent of non-completion, the HEFCE started an internal project
to link student data. This work provided the basis for the PIs
already referred to. The work also has the potential to identify
factors associated with non-completion. To this end the HEFCE
has consulted the leading researchers in the field to identify
the most appropriate modelling techniques to use. Much work has
also been carried out to supplement and link the data collected
by HESA with data from other sources relating to factors which
are known to be important (like details of entry qualifications).
When this work is completed we should be in a position definitively
to answer such questions as whether there is a risk associated
with entering through clearing. This overview will inform the
specification of future detailed qualitative research in order
to understand how and why such associations are observed.
10. Nevertheless, there are some factors
that stand out, so that even at this stage we can with some confidence
identify three factors which are associated with non-completion.
(a) Entry qualifications: entrants with weak
A-levels or non-A-level qualifications are less likely to complete.
Figure 1 illustrates this by showing the relationship between
rates of non-continuation from the year of entry for young full-time
degree entrants by A-level points. Nevertheless, it will be seen
that the great majority, even of students with poor A level qualifications,
complete their courses successfully.
(b) Subjects: engineering (for example) has
a high average non-completion rate.
(c) Age: mature students are less likely
11. The interpretation of figure 1 is complicated
by the fact that A-level points not only measure characteristics
of the individual students, they also in part determine where
a student will study. In principle the observed relationship could
be an institutional or an individual effect, or some mixture of
the two. We will have a fuller understanding when the modelling
is completed, but from the analysis we have carried out it does
appear that this is predominantly an individual effectstudents
with better A-levels tend to do better where ever they study.
12. Where all these factors combine together,
low completion rates are observed. If we take mature students
without A-levels or a degree on entry, studying engineering, mathematics,
computing or the physical sciences, the average expected graduation
rate across the sector is only 60 per cent. Clearly for these
students, any one or more of the five reasons for non-completion
may be operating. However, even without knowing which reasons
are most important, we are able to advise institutions to take
particular care in both recruiting and supporting students with
13. Though we will only be sure when we
have completed the full modelling exercise, it seems likely that
some factors that appear to be associated with non-completion
can, in fact be explained by the above factors. Table 1 shows
the different rates of non-continuation from the year of entry
for young full-time degree entrants by Social Class.
NON-CONTINUATION FOLLOWING YEAR OF ENTRY
BY SOCIAL CLASS (YOUNG FULL-TIME FIRST DEGREE ENTRANTS, 1997-98)
||% not in HE|
|IIII and V||9%|
14. One might conclude that financial hardship is a contributory
factor to the differences (and this may at least in part be the
case), but if we look at the non-continuation rates for these
groups of students with "good" A-levels we see (table
2) very similar non-continuation rates.
NON-CONTINUATION FOLLOWING YEAR OF ENTRY BY SOCIAL CLASS
(YOUNG FULL-TIME FIRST DEGREE ENTRANTS WITH 24 TO 30 A-LEVEL POINTS,
|Social Class||% not in HE
|IIII and V||3%|
15. The qualitative evidence from the Yorke et al
study, together with the quantitative analysis above which associates
non-completion with entry qualifications and subject of study,
make it reasonable to conclude, tentatively, that non-completion
is substantially and predominantly associated with academic and
academic-related causes, although other factors, including financial
ones, may also play a part.
16. The UK does appear to compare favourably with other
countries in terms of student retention and completion. Figures
derived from the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development
(OECD) show that among the other major industrialised countries
only Japan at 90 per cent has a higher completion rate than the
UK. Rates are much lower in France (55 per cent), Germany (72
per cent) and United States (63 per cent).
17. Since 1999-2000 the Council has supported widening
participation both through mainstream formula funding and special
initiative funding. Mainstream formula funding recognises the
additional costs to institutions of recruiting and retaining disadvantaged
students and special initiative funding supports innovative and
developmental activity which helps institutions to achieve their
widening participation strategy and further embed recrutiment
and retention activities. We are at present allocating over £11
million annually through the premiums for mature students, over
£26 million annually for part-time students and more than
£24 million in respect of students from disadvantaged backgrounds.
In addition, we are allocating £11.5 million per year through
special programme funding.
18. Our widening participation strategy to date has been
concerned with both recruiting greater numbers of students, particularly
from under-represented groups and geographical areas, and with
ensuring that all students have the best possible chance of succeeding
in their studies. Our new proposals, developed in conjunction
with the Government's "Excellence Challenge" programme,
highlight issues of retention and progression because we recognise
that students with lower entry qualifications are at a higher
risk of failing to complete their studies, and because entrants
from under-represented groups have relatively weak entry qualifications
on average. The Government has provided significant resources,
which the HEFCE administer, to reduce the possibility that financial
hardship will lead to non-completion. Funds already provided for
2000-01 are: Hardship Funds (£57 million), Mature Students
Bursaries (£15 million) and Fee Waiver Schemes (£12
19. The HEFCE has recently undertaken a consultation
exercise seeking comments on proposals to link funding to institutional
strategies for widening participation (HEFCE 00/50). Following
this consultation we propose to ask all institutions to develop
their widening participation statements indicating, among other
things, how their planned activities relate to retention. For
example, the HEFCE and Government would like to see better support
for students from disadvantaged backgrounds, so that having enrolled
in higher education, they receive the help and support they need
to successfully complete their studies.We intend to ask institutions
to return fully developed statements of their plans for widening
participation when they submit their annual operating statements
in July 2001.
20. In order to assist and advise institutions in the
construction of these statements, the Council will be organising
a series of regional seminars through April and May 2001 and producing
a guide to good practice on widening participation and retention.
Both the regional seminars and the guide to good practice will
be informed by an analysis of initial widening participation statements
recently undertaken by the "Action on Access" team led
by Professor Geoff Layer at the University of Bradford.
21. In addition to its allocation of mainstream formula
funding the Council also supports widening participation and retention
through special initiative funding. As part of its strategy to
improve access and participation in higher education, the HEFCE
allocated £5 million per year over the three-year period
1999-2000 to 2001-02 to support a programme of regional partnerships.
These regional partnerships are supported by Action on Access
who, as well as offering support and advice to individual projects,
also disseminate knowledge and expertise on widening participation
throughout the sector.
22. Action on Access works closely with the national
co-ordination bodies appointed to support the Council's programmes
to improve provision for disabled students (National Disability
Team) and promote high quality in teaching and learning (Teaching
Quality Enhancement Fund National Co-ordination Team).
23. Nearly two-thirds of these projects address the issue
of student retention, either directly (ie through specific retention
strategies) or indirectly (ie through a range of related activities
such as staff development).
24. In addition, whilst the majority of projects focus
predominantly on the issue of recruitment, many pre-entry activities
in which they engage relate strongly to retention since they help
prepare students for higher education. A third of all projects
have a primary focus on bridging and transition activities which
address the needs of students at what often proves to be the most
vulnerable time for "drop out".
25. Our work over the past two years has enabled us accurately
to measure non-completion, and to begin to understand its nature
and its causes. Work is progressing to develop our understanding
better in order to be able to target action. The Secretary of
State has asked us to "bear down" on non-completion,
and we intend to do so from a position of knowledge and understanding.
HEFCE is bound to insist on improvements in completion rates,
but in doing so we need to continue to recognise valid reasons
for differences between institutions. And the same factors which
lead to some institutions having higher non-completion rates than
others also apply when considering the performance of the sector
as a whole. One thing we will need to do in the future is to try
and understand what constitutes a reasonable and even inevitable
level of non-completion. We do not believe that we have reached
that point yet.
Yorke, M; Ozga, J and Sukhnandan, L (1997) Undergraduate
non-completion in higher education in England, (HEFCE reference
97/29 Research), HEFCE.
Higher Education Funding Council for England
It is germane to note that direct comparisons between countries
is difficult because it involves comparing figures on different
bases and different definitions of non-completion. Back