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


Memorandum from Universities UK (HE 101)

  Universities UK welcomes the opportunity to submit the following written evidence for the Education Sub-committee's inquiry into student retention in higher education.


Setting the Scene

  1.  Massive changes have occurred in the UK higher education system over the last 10 years. Around 40 polytechnics have become universities, taking the number of universities to 90. The proportion of people participating in HE (Great Britain) by the age of 21 has risen from 15 per cent in 1988-89 to 33 per cent in 2000-01, and the Government has set a target of 50 per cent of young people benefiting from higher education by the age of 30 by 2010. The student mix has changed. More than half of students are women, and ethnic minorities are over-represented as a whole in higher education in comparison to their share of the population, although some individual groups remain under-represented. Care is taken to help students with particular needs (eg dyslexia, disabilities, learning problems) to get the most from higher education. Recent OECD figures indicated that the UK system achieves a completion rate for students that is second only to Japan world-wide. Graduate employment figures are good, and most graduates earn relatively higher salaries than non-graduates throughout their working lives.

  2.  More public money and more people involved mean that there is a need for rigorous accountability to check progress and deal with problems, and there is public, ministerial and institutional concern to ensure the one and deal with the other. The Secretary of State's letter to the Higher Education Funding Council indicated his view that public money was being wasted if some students failed to achieve the expected outcome from their time at university. There is also a genuine concern over the human costs of failure. At the same time, it must be recognised that retention is a problem that can be minimised rather than completely abolished. There will always be some people who want to change direction, however well informed their original decision was.

  3.  Whilst failure is distressing for the individuals involved and those concerned with them, academic failure rates are very low (at approx. ¾ per cent pa[14]) in comparison with non-completion rates (although even the latter are relatively small by international standards.) It is the latter that pose the greater problem for the system as a whole.

  4.  Patterns of study today are far more varied and flexible than when most undergraduates completed their courses in three or four year degrees. Students can study full- or part-time, switch courses and sometimes institutions as well, and take study breaks. Defining and estimating non-completion becomes more difficult, since an individual might choose to accumulate a small number of modules and set a qualification goal after experience, or be shown as a failure in one institution but some years later may be a success at another. Further HEFCE figures[15] for full-time students on young entrants and mature students show for the latter group double the percentage not continuing beyond year of entry—8 per cent v 15 per cent.

  5.  DfEE figures for non-completion among full-time students have fluctuated over the years—14 per cent in 1955, 15 per cent in 1984-85, 17 per cent in 1987-88, 14 per cent in 1988-89 and 18 to 19 per cent in 1995-96. HEFCE began to compile figures on a new basis for first degree entrants in 1996-97 and found 18 per cent leaving without a qualification, dropping to 17 per cent for 1997-98 entrants. There are also substantial differences between institutions (1 per cent—38 per cent from smallest to largest institutional figures).[16]

  6.  Whatever the reason, there is obviously a cost to the public purse of these non-completion rates. In addition, the HEFCE Performance Indicators (PIs) suggest that students may be taking longer to complete their qualifications, with an attendant knock-on effect for costs to the public purse. It is a policy decision to decide whether the additional costs are justified to avoid non-completion, and to give students the kinds of advantages described in paragraph 1.

  7.  Institutions are agreed that it is hard to define causality in non-completion rates - a variety of factors are involved.

  8.  Solving the problem of non-completion needs to be tackled on different levels, identifying common factors which can then be systematically dealt with. Life events such as accident, illness, bereavement or other family problems are unpredictable. Pastoral care can mitigate some of the effects, but does not guarantee final success.

  9.  Factors which have been raised as possible causes of non-completion are examined below.

Paid work during term-time

  10.  The DfEE's Changing Student Finances: Income, Expenditure and Take-up of Loans Among Full-time and Part-time Higher Education Students in 1998-99 revealed that nearly two-thirds of full-time students worked during the academic year. The work undertaken might also be relevant to the student's subject of study, and enhance their knowledge and understanding of their subject area. The impact of working will also be less detrimental if the intensity of work varies to accommodate exams, coursework deadlines, etc. However, according to NUS figures these students work on average 20 hours per week. The reasons for this trend and what kind of lifestyle students are seeking to sustain requires examination. Substantial part-time employment of nominally full-time students has obvious implications for course length, organisation and standards.

  11.  The Universities UK research by the Centre for Higher Education Research and Information (CHERI), based at the Open University, and the Social Science Research Centre (SSRC) on student debt will also analyse the impact of term-time working on patterns of attendance and the teaching and learning functions of universities. It will also consider the benefits as well as the adverse impacts of term-time working.

Curriculum and qualification structures

  12.  Universities have introduced far more flexibility into their course structures and enabled students to choose from different modes of study, including part-time, work-based, distance and technology-assisted learning. They have responded to demands for a wider range of opportunities by offering programmes either through modular schemes or in combined programmes, both of which enable students to transfer between programmes when initial choices have proved unsuitable.

  13.  Students need guidance to identify programmes which meet their needs and build on areas of interest; but they also need to be guided into selecting programme components that fit together coherently in an academic sense and in a manner which provides clear career progression. The personal tutoring system is often the means by which students are supported in this, and many universities have begun to introduce Progress Files, and in particular personal development planning processes, to ensure that this is done in a structured and systematic way. Universities UK, together with SCOP, QAA and the Learning and Teaching Support Network, is leading on the implementation of policy on Progress Files in higher education, following the Dearing recommendation.

  14.  Qualification structures have catered for students with diverse needs at the beginning of their programmes and many institutions already have "stopping off" points for students who unexpectedly find that they wish to exit from higher education before reaching their original qualification aim. The new National Qualifications Frameworks (from QAA) will further assist institutions to establish flexible programme structures and to communicate to students and to employers a shared national understanding of qualification level. The Frameworks will also help students who wish to return to study after a break to identify possible pathways and will support careers and other advisers in helping students identify career development opportunities.

  15.  Institutions collaborate already in facilitating student exchanges and transfers and in recognising credit earned in other institutions. The OU alone approves some 7,000 individual cases of credit transfer each year across the UK. Another 10,000 learners a year have their learning recognised by OU Validation Services, which provides validation and credit-rating for the rest of the sector. Last year approximately 1,200 of those individual applications for credit transfer were from students with incomplete first degrees, who had effectively "dropped out" of full-time HE study. Such a facility encourages students to capitalise on earlier, incomplete, study. This is just one example of how students leaving an institution with incomplete first degree studies can complete their degree, immediately or after a period of years, on a part-time basis.

  16.  For this potential to be realised, England needs to address and resolve a series of fundamental issues. These include the basis for quantifying and recording learning, the scale to be adopted, the minimum credit requirements per qualification (especially at ordinary degree and masters level), and the relationships between degree structures in Scotland and the rest of the UK and between academic awards and vocational qualifications. In Scotland, there is already a Scottish Credit and Qualifications Framework, which achieves these objectives. The credit Consortia in England and Wales (collaborations of higher education institutions) are also working towards this end, in the context of the QAA's work described above.

  17.  The new system for describing and reviewing programmes in terms of content (through programme specifications), standards (through subject benchmarks and the guidance on programme design in the Code of Practice on Programme Approval, Monitoring and Review), and quality (through reports of reviews at institutional and subject group level) will make higher education far more transparent to its stakeholders. It represents a great achievement by QAA since its establishment in 1997, building on the earlier work of the Higher Education Quality Council. While the existence of an accessible "road-map" of this kind can never be more than an aid to retention, the fact that students will rapidly learn that they can be guided through a clear system should help universities support students in doubt about continuing with higher education or how to organise a temporary exit and return.

  18.  It should be ensured that the funding and financial support for students encourages part-time, work-based, distance and other newer forms of learning, as well as full-time study. The additional costs of providing for these students—extending library opening hours, providing low cost childcare, training workplace mentors, developing technological support—need to be met.

Pastoral care

  19.  Student support services within universities face challenges in maintaining effective services for increasing numbers of students to enable them to benefit from and complete their studies. Students in higher education face the common problems that all young people do and also particular pressures due to their involvement in higher education-separation from family and friends, academic difficulties and financial pressures. The drive to widen participation in higher education has led to increasing diversity within the student population and greater participation by people from non-traditional backgrounds. A significant percentage of students are now classified as mature and many have family and work commitments to balance with study.

  20.  Universities UK has worked with a variety of professional organisations, public bodies and voluntary associations on student and staff welfare issues for a number of years. Work has been done with the Association of Managers of Student Services in HE (AMOSSHE), the Public Health Laboratory Service (PHLS), the National Meningitis Trust and the Heads of University Counselling Services among others to produce guidance relating to student and staff welfare issues in higher education. Guidance has been produced on the safety of student placements, drugs and alcohol, meningitis, extremism and intolerance and student mental health policies.

  21.  The most recent guidelines on student mental health policies and procedures[17], welcomed by the sector, were stimulated by the growing awareness in the UK of mental health issues and in particular the increasing awareness of the pressures on young people that may contribute to mental health difficulties.

  22.  A study produced in 1999 by the Heads of University Counselling Services "Degrees of Disturbance—the New Agenda" drew attention to the perceived increase in the level of psychological disturbance within the student population and indicated a number of factors to which this increase may be attributable. These factors included the shift to a mass higher education system, widening access, modularity, financial anxieties and changes in society. The report also noted the increasing demands faced by staff in higher education. HEFCE has also funded a number of research projects investigating mental health issues in a number of higher education institutions.

  23.  There is a growing awareness that where once the provision of counsellors, medical centre staff and other staff working in a supportive capacity could be expected to address any mental health difficulties encountered within the institution, this is no longer sufficient. Whilst these services will continue to support the work of HEIs, a more coherent institutional structural approach is required together with the involvement of specialist professional from outside the sector, for example, psychiatrists, clinical psychologists, GPs and mental health teams.

  24.  Currently Universities UK and SCOP are funding a project to research student suicide. The study aims to recommend a procedure for the future collection of information on student suicide and highlight examples of good practice in the provision of student support services and is due to report in summer 2001.


Teaching quality

  25.  The UK leads the world in terms both of institutions' internal systems for controlling standards and quality and in terms of related external mechanisms of assurance. Universities UK, with the other representative bodies of heads of higher education institutions, are the guarantors of the constitution of the QAA and worked with the funding bodies in the UK to set it up, and are committed to ensuring its success and its efficiency. Reports of reviews of institutional systems and procedures for the teaching function have shown the strength of the UK's institutions, and subject review reports have been overwhelmingly positive across both institutions and subjects. Ground-breaking work on benchmarking standards across the UK has proved itself and is continuing with very wide agreement and acceptance. The growing amount of provision in joint, combined and interdisciplinary programmes will be reviewed under a section of the new Code of Practice which covers programme approval, including design considerations, with reference to relevant benchmarks; this is world-leading work.

  26.  The publicly available quality-assured programme specifications which institutions will be producing for every course and programme they offer will help students to make appropriate choices. These will be assured through internal systems subject to external review by QAA teams, and through the external examiner system in its new strengthened form under the QAA Code of Practice, itself building on earlier Codes from HEQC and its predecessors.

  27.  There remains the danger that subject group reports, which are much broader in coverage and generally much older than internal sources of information, could be used by students as a shortcut in choosing their individual programmes. In view of the findings of the HEFCE study into the burden of accountability, that subject review accounts for a large part of the burden, it would be desirable to move as quickly as possible to a less burdensome form of review to quality-assure internal systems such as programme specifications. This would eliminate duplication of effort and to ensure that students use the most relevant and up-to-date information.

Teaching Infrastructure

  28.  World-wide, the teaching infrastructure needed for modern higher education is changing rapidly to take advantage of new tools and systems now possible with advance communications and information technology, and to cope with the knowledge explosion and corresponding changes in the skills needs of industry and commerce. Maintenance of the quality of UK higher education, as measured against these trends, needs substantial new investment in the teaching infrastructure, building on the public investment which has (for example) allowed the UK to keep up with world levels in network and electronic information services. Further investment is needed in particular to meet the specific needs for support of the additional students likely to be recruited to higher education in response to the Government's initiatives aimed at increasing participation.

Recruitment of HE teachers

  29.  In June 1999 the Bett Report concluded that the UK higher education sector was not experiencing widespread difficulties in the recruitment and retention of staff. However, it noted that individual institutions were experiencing problems in certain subject areas. The Review Committee chaired by Sir Michael Bett also received evidence highlighting concerns about the quality of applicants for available posts, which they felt may indicate more serious recruitment and retention problems to come.

  30.  Universities UK, HEFCE, SCOP, UCEA and the UK funding councils agreed that further research should be undertaken to complement the Bett Committee's work, and commissioned two independent reports on recruitment and retention difficulties in employment in higher education—these were published in February 2000.

  31.  The key finding of the reports was that recruitment and retention difficulties are being experienced in key academic specialisms and in recruiting high calibre academic staff at senior and professorial level across a wide range of disciplines. Recruitment to subjects including accountancy, engineering, computer science, business, law, nursing and maths was revealed to be increasingly problematic. A decline in the numbers taking up PhD studentships was also noted, primarily in engineering, technology, education and economics, with a knock-on effect on junior staff recruitment.

  32.  The reports concluded that if higher education institutions are unable to recruit their fair share of the brightest and most talented academics, this would, in the medium and long term, have a fundamental impact on the ability of UK higher education to underpin the knowledge-based economy.

  33.  The prime factor in recruitment and retention problems was identified as pay. Areas of employment are opening up, especially consultancy, that offer higher salaries and scope for exciting research and deployment of skills. Opportunities overseas are increasingly attracting top academics. The most innovative and valuable staff are leaving for the higher-paying public sector where their mix of talents is better rewarded.

  34.  The Review of funding options for higher education in the UK by London Economics for Universities UK identified a funding requirement of £700 million per annum from 2004-05 to improve staff pay and conditions, recruit and retain staff of the required competence and meet statutory requirements for equal pay for work of equal value.

  35.  The recruitment and retention of quality staff is vital to the sector, given the Government's target of 50 per cent of young people entering HE by age 30 within the next decade.

Effect of teaching/research relationship on student retention

  36.  UK universities engage in teaching and research, to the benefit of both. The ability to undertake research is for many academics a strong motivating factor, and engagement in research informs their teaching with an understanding of the cutting edge of knowledge. Research income funds laboratories, equipment and libraries, all of which benefit student learning. For teaching at postgraduate level and in the final year of first degrees requiring project-based assignments—perhaps particularly in departments that provide research training—the link with research can be particularly close. Teaching can help to identify research questions. It is worth noting that those institutions that are most active in research also have strong completion rates (HEFCE PIs), although it is recognised that this is not the only factor.

  37.  The balance between teaching and research activity varies across universities, depending on the history and mission of the university and the scale of research funds earned. But access to even modest research funding can help transform the culture of a university, with benefits to teaching.

  38.  The key point is that it is a distinguishing feature of teaching at higher education level that it is research-informed, either through active engagement in research or through scholarship (whereby academics keep up with research developments in their field). Familiarity with the generation of knowledge is fundamental in underpinning the quality of teaching in universities. Teaching in higher education involves motivating and facilitating learning—developing intellectual autonomy in students—as much as imparting knowledge or skills. It is vital that the higher education learning experience takes place in an environment of intellectual inquiry, and that teaching is not only founded on secure pedagogy, but also remains up to date with developments in the various disciplines.

  39.  Research funding is highly concentrated in UK universities, and as a result new relationships between research and teaching are developing, including emphasis on scholarship to underpin teaching, and greater institutional collaboration, which enables staff to teach in one institution and undertake research in another. Separate funding streams for teaching and research are appropriate: research funding is allocated for a specific purpose and is necessarily selective, whereas teaching funding is universal and equal. However, this does not mean that there is a damaging divide.

  40.  The way forward is not to tinker with research funding or assessment—but to create other and parallel reward systems to support teaching.

Academic support for students

  41.  Increasing retention is expensive. It is reasonable to believe that university systems working to ensure retention are optimised for the conditions under which they operate. Any shift from this optimum will call for revised objectives and different incentive systems, as HEFCE and other funding councils have implicitly acknowledged by making funds available specifically to address issues of non-completion arising from social disadvantage.

  42.  Institutions are very much aware of the trauma and cost, both to student and to staff time, of unplanned changes to courses and programmes. For this reason modular schemes have clear guidance on pathway possibilities, and institutions which do not operate fully modular programmes ensure that courses contain well signposted options and/or breakpoints at which divergent paths can be followed (eg BEng/MEng divergence in mid-programme). Students from backgrounds where there is little experience of higher education need more support to avoid unplanned crises in using such flexible structures. This calls for intensive personal attention from hard-pressed staff, and this needs to be fully resourced, especially in view of the change over the past 10 to 15 years in student/staff ratios.

  43.  Studies on non-completion suggest some programme changes students seek may not be for academic reasons. Course and programme guidance need to be operated consistently with careers support and guidance, and this must be achieved within a largely voluntary system, since higher education is an adult field. Investment in improving retention through guidance services has to be implemented through careful design of the whole university environment, which generally needs significant reshaping for non-traditional students. The corresponding investment needs are significant.

  44.  Universities UK would recommend research by the funding councils into the additional costs of supporting students from non-traditional backgrounds. Universities UK undertook some small-scale research but found it difficult to gather reliable evidence. Many universities are reluctant to distinguish support services for different kinds of students, as this runs counter to the desire for integration, and so the additional cost is hidden.

Communications and Information Technology Resources (C&IT)

  45.  Resources need to be applied specifically to address the relevant needs. These can be obscured by general trends—for example in C&IT, where there is a technological shift in university resources as well as specific investment to address retention issues. There is also the negative effect of failure to keep up with trends. Retention could be damaged by such failure; it could be improved by use of appropriate technology. The London Economics report for Universities UK, Review of funding options for higher education in the UK, highlighted the implications of C&IT on issues of standards and quality of provision. It was argued that C&IT could potentially improve the quality of service offered by higher education institutions, by indirectly raising the standard of teaching and research, directly facilitating teaching and research, improving administrative services for staff and students and increasing the level of choice to the consumer.

  46.  Most technology is concerned with widening opportunities for all students and facilitating better performance—eg conventional "office" suites of programmes for word processing, spreadsheets; presentation software; access to information over networks and through library-based terminals. While these enhance the learning experience for most students, and are indeed essential in a competitive international higher education environment, they could become a factor in deterring or driving away the disadvantaged who will be less familiar with such tools than most. All institutions take support for students very seriously—however, significant additional costs could fall on IT support functions and library support staff if the proportion of such students in higher education rises.

  47.  It is difficult to benchmark what higher education institutions currently spend on C&IT, as there is no common approach to accounting for C&IT expenditure (investments could be made by financially distinct departments, faculties or colleges). However, if higher education institutions are to derive the full potential benefits of investment in C&IT, the need for support and training for staff and students, as well as the restructuring of programmes, will require increased investment.

  48.  UCISA (Universities and Colleges Information Systems Association) believe that around 40 per cent of students in higher education now have their own PC, while they estimate from statistical returns that the average number of students per workstation can vary between 3.7 and 58.9 (average 9.7). The Dearing Review estimated that in 1997, the ratio was about 15:1 and recommended that the ratio should be moved to 10:1, but desirably 8:1, and in the medium term to 5:1. There is some way to go to reach this level.

  49.  Some of this variation naturally reflects subject mix, but it is not hard to see how students who begin with financial or social disadvantage can find the gap widening between themselves and others more fortunate. This is particularly the case where their own need for support is likely to be significantly greater, as their background will be of less experience of the use of IT-based systems.

  50.  The scale of resources required is far from trivial. Dearing estimated that sector spend was between £700 million and £1,000 million (included some £60 million to £70 million centrally, ie JISC); UCISA estimates that spend last year averaged £4.5 million per institution, with corresponding variations with institutional size, and about £369 per student. Much of this will be support (personnel) costs. Compare the recommendation for Student Portable Computers at £500 each.

Aspects of funding debate which are relevant to student retention

  51.  Some financial issues relating to the retention of students have been raised in the paragraphs above.

  52.  Research suggests that personal financial issues, including need for maintenance support, and contributions to tuition fees amongst others, play an important role in student retention. The availability of adequate financial support for students, and knowledge of this amongst potential students and their parents, is considered to be particularly crucial by those with experience of recruiting and retaining students from disadvantaged backgrounds. Students and their families need to have clear and timely information about what is available to them before they enter higher education. Although the new initiatives which bring money in are welcome, it is necessary to ensure that students can access the information in simple terms. This is also the case for mature students. For example, the New Opportunities bursaries need to be widely publicised, through schools, colleges and the Connexions service, in order to encourage those who would not have considered higher education study to apply. It will be difficult to attract new groups of entrants if we rely on waiting until a potential student has contacted a higher education institution or even applied. All parties should also publicise the benefits to individuals of higher education, in terms of higher earnings, better life chances and personal fulfilment, so as to counter the perception of debt.

  53.  It is a point of significant concern that many students and their families are unaware that with the new means-tested threshold around 40 per cent of dependent students will be exempt from making any contribution to tuition fees. More needs to be done to communicate this effectively to potential students. Equally worrying is the conclusion of the recently published DfEE report Changing Student Finances: Income, Expenditure and Take-up of Loans Among Full-time and Part-time Higher Education Students in 1998-99 that one in five students whose parents were assessed to make a contribution towards fees received less than the assessed amount and faced an average shortfall of £579.

  54.  Perceptions of debt are critical to students' decisions to enter and remain in higher education. This may be particularly so for students from poorer backgrounds and those without a tradition of higher education in their families. The same report shows that average student's debt had increased from £2,404 in 1995-96 to £3,462 in 1998-99. These debts had been accumulated before the abolition of grants and the introduction of tuition fees and loan-funded maintenance. Subsequent cohorts of students can therefore expect to leave university with even higher levels of debt. However, the report suggests that increased levels of borrowing indicate that debt is becoming a more acceptable part of students' life—signalling a change in behaviour and attitudes towards debt. This is an issue that we will be exploring further in our review of students' debt (see below).

  55.  We welcome the moves that the Government has made to target funds on the most vulnerable groups, particularly lone parents, mature students and those from poorer backgrounds. It is early days yet to judge the full impact of these initiatives but we believe that this development should aid retention of students.

  56.  Universities UK is currently reviewing the range of options for the future funding of higher education and has recently commissioned a complementary study to examine perceptions and attitudes to student funding. This is being conducted by the Centre for Higher Education Research and Information (CHERI), based at the Open University, and the Social Science Research Centre (SSRC), at South Bank University. The researchers will examine the nature of debt, including reasons for debt, the groups of students most badly affected and the differences between categories of students, such as part-time/full-time and mature students. The study will address students' propensity to borrow, including cultural attitudes to debt. The project team will also look at the links between debt and the likelihood of successful completion of higher education programmes. The interim findings from the study will feed into the work of the Funding options Review Group.

  57.  Universities UK is also concerned about the funding of part-time students. The current funding system has largely been designed around full-time students, though some welcome modest adjustments have been made in recent years. We believe that greater efforts should be made to provide more equitable funding treatment for full-time and part-time students.

  58.  The Higher Education Funding Council for England pays a 5 per cent premium within the block grant for young students from identified low participation areas. This approach rewards success in recruiting students from poorer backgrounds. Universities UK believes that such funds to improve access should be mainstreamed rather than provided as special initiative funding. We also consider that the funds need to be increased to reflect the true cost of recruiting students from disadvantaged backgrounds and to address the extra costs associated with ensuring that these students remain in their courses.

Universities UK

January 2001

14   (Mantz Yorke 1997: 9). Back

15   HEFCE 2000. Back

16   HEFCE 2000. Back

17   CVCP Guidelines on student mental health policies and procedures for higher education, April 2000. Back

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