Select Committee on Education and Employment Appendices to the Minutes of Evidence


Letter to the Committee Specialist from Dr Alan Ryan, Warden, New College, Oxford (HE 100)

  1.  I imagine that the Select Committee will—rightly—be concentrating on institutions with high drop-out rates. I would like to offer one thought from an institution with a drop-out rate close to zero, and a couple of thoughts culled from teaching at a variety of institutions from the City University of New York to New College.

  2.  We have a drop-out rate that is effectively zero for academic and financial reasons; in very few years does any student fail the first public examination twice; and where they have trouble in later years, we almost invariably contrive to give them leave of absence and get them through their finals a year later. But, such unmanageable problems as students do have are almost always deep psychological problems, and not intellectual inadequacies. I should think that we lose something between one and two students a year from a population of 400 undergraduates and 200 graduates for this reason. A number of these losses may be inevitable, since pathologies such as schizophrenia strike in late teenage and the early twenties. The more impressive fact is that most students are rescued by the college's welfare system, the university's counselling service, and the medical services.

  This suggests to me a couple of thoughts about higher drop-out rates.

  3.  One is that hard-up institutions may be forced to sacrifice welfare services to the preservation of a minimum teaching and research establishment, and that there may be something to be said for pushing money across from the teaching budget to the welfare system.

  4.  A second is that it may be that students are starting to behave like their American counterparts—they do not much mind abandoning degree courses that will have no pay-off in their careers, and they are happy to drop in and out of school, as they drop in and out of employment, in order to pick up a degree more slowly and affordably. This would, I think, be acceptable as an approach to education if universities were well adapted to it; they possibly aren't at present.

  5.  The third, however, is that there may now be a real mismatch between degree level work—even pretty low grade degree level work—and the prior educational experience of the student. If universities are providing remedial secondary education and passing it off as degree level work, it must risk producing an experience which simultaneously gives students the impression that they are inadequately prepared and that what they are being given is not in fact what they were promised. Again, it seems to me that remedial education is a very good thing—but ought to be offered openly and efficiently.

Alan Ryan

January 2001

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