Select Committee on Education and Employment Minutes of Evidence



  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 their performance.


  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. These are:

    (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 to complete.

  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 effect—students 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 such characteristics.

  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.

Table 1

Social Class % not in HE
IIII and V9%

  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.

Table 2

Social Class% not in HE
IIII and V3%

  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)[36].


  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 million).

  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

January 2001

36   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

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