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


Memorandum from Dr Peter Slee, University of Durham (HE 121)

  1. Thank you for your request for evidence on student retention.

  2. At Durham we have given this issue very serious consideration. Our structure offers us a unique basis for analysing a range of factors which may affect completion.

  3. We have two operational sites. The larger part of our University is in Durham City. Established in 1832, Durham is the third oldest English University foundation, with a distinctive collegiate superstructure supporting some 7,500 undergraduates and 2,000 postgraduates drawn from every UK region and from over 90 countries world-wide. Students read a broad range of "traditional" academic subjects. With eight applications per place, admission is highly competitive. Average A/AS level points on entry are 25.2. Our new campus is at Stockton, 26 miles to the South. We established the University of Durham Stockton Campus (UDSC) in 1992 in order to support regional economic regeneration on Teesside, one of the UK's most deprived sub-regions. The UDSC curriculum is based primarily on applied science and social sciences which are intended to have a direct impact on the regional economic and social agenda. Over 40 per cent of the 1,500 UDSC undergraduates are from the North East region. Entry is more open than at Durham; many students enter without A-level qualifications. Average A-level scores are 18 points. Although in 2001 Stockton will open two colleges to which all students will affiliate, for the first eight years it has operated a hall-of-residence system similar to many other newer universities.

  4. According to HEFCE statistics Durham has the fourth highest retention rate in UK Higher Education, with 94 per cent of our students completing their degrees. This is 9 per cent above, and therefore significantly higher than, the national average.

  5. There is, however, a significant difference between the first year completion rates at our two sites. At Durham 95.8 per cent of entrants return in year two. At UDSC the figure is 85.1 per cent. There is no significant difference in completion rates in years 2/3/4 between the two sites, suggesting that "first-year survival" is the critical issue.

  6. We analyse reasons for "drop-out". There are seven reasons commonly recorded:

Academic failure
Personal reasons
Transfer to another institution

  7. Academic failure is clearly the most significant reason for failure to complete. It also represents the most significant difference in completion rates between our two sites. At Durham, around 80 students a year do not pass their first year exams (3.5 per cent of the entry). At UDSC the figure is 70 students (or 14 per cent of the entry). This is a highly significant difference, and one which we are keen to understand, and improve on.

  8. Using national figures we have analysed the relationship between subject mix, A-level entry scores, QAA teaching scores, expenditure on facilities, and completion. Although the inter-relationship between these various factors is undoubtedly complex, we have identified a significant correlation between A-level entry points and completion. To put it starkly, 27 of the 30 English Universities with the highest A-level entry points feature in the list of the 30 universities with the highest completion rates. The relationship between completion rates and entry grades is very strong when entry grades are above the national average of 17.9 points, but less so for institutions whose average entry points are lower. This correlation is much less strong for teaching grades, and weak for expenditure on facilities.

  9. This relationship appears to go some way towards explaining the root of the distinction between completion rates at Durham and Stockton. Stockton's average A-level entry points (18) are close to the UK national average (17.9). Stockton's completion rate is 85.1 per cent compared to the national average of 85 per cent. Durham's intake averages 25.2 points and its completion rate is 96 per cent. Only Cambridge (28.8 points) and King's College London (23.2 points) have higher completion rates.

  10. So, for what do A-level scores stand proxy? At one level, the answer is proven study skills (ability to take notes, read independently, synthesise and analyse information, organise and present information coherently); at another, social factors are clearly involved. The DfEE Excellence Challenge proposals show clearly that 44 per cent of students in social classes I, II and III(nm) achieve two or more A-levels compared to 18 per cent in social classes III(m), IV, and V. Five times as many students from social classes I, II and III(nm) achieve outstanding grades, than do students in social classes III(m), IV, V. It is possible, therefore, that many students with higher grades may have greater "life chances" expressed as increased access to finance, guidance and support from home or school, which in turn, may increase chances of success at University.

  11. Although A-level grades are the key factor in retention, an analysis of differences in retention among groups of universities with similarly graded in-takes, reveals smaller differences in performance. In our judgement some of these differences can be explained by subject mix (A-level languages and mathematically-based natural sciences have a higher drop-out rate) and by location (some large city-based institutions appear to have a higher drop-out rate than smaller, campus-based institutions). Where average lower A-level entry scores are concerned we see a strong correlation between better than predicted retention rates and good average QAA teaching scores and investment in facilities. At Durham, for instance, our completion rates for non-standard entrants is as high as the overall completion rate. This suggests that the drive to improve teaching quality may account for a small incremental gain in retention. At UDSC we have developed excellent teaching, learning and social facilities and built in formal study skills courses to help students overcome some of the disadvantages they may face. At Durham we believe our excellent teaching scores and collegiate based support system make a significant difference.

  12. In Durham 20 per cent of drop-outs take place before the end of the first term. At Durham the figure is 35 per cent and at UDSC 5 per cent. The numbers are small (40 in Durham, 7 in UDSC) and we can discern very little pattern in them. Financial reasons ostensibly account for less than 1 per cent of the total, however, it is possible that hidden financial pressures affect academic performance. In Durham 900 undergraduates (12 per cent) are registered with our internal job shop, and we estimate that as many as 1:5 students are working part-time. Around ten per cent of our undergraduates apply for hardship funds. We are also augmenting this with our own bursary funds raised from former students. We believe these funds are an essential lifeline for many students, particularly for mature students.

  13. In summary, we suggest that:

    —  A-level entry scores are the core determinant of completion. Students with good scores are better prepared for independent study, those with lower scores less so.

    —  Within broad bands of average A-level entry scores there is some less significant variation among university completion rates. This variation is much greater among universities with lower than the national average A-level entry scores. The factors which may account for this difference between similarly placed universities are complex. Some are a product of location and subject mix. Some depend upon direct action taken by universities, including the standard of teaching and access to financial support.

  14. In our view it is essential for the UK's economic prospects, and for social justice, that access to higher education is available to all who can profit from it. A and A/S-level grades are clearly a very good indicator of this ability. It is also obvious that a great many people without formal qualifications can and do benefit from higher education. Therefore, it is vital that they also have increased access to universities and colleges. Nevertheless, it is clearly more difficult and time consuming for universities to make a sound judgement about their preparedness for intensive study, and therefore retention rates among this group are likely to be lower. At Durham, however, the completion rates for mature students from low participation neighbourhoods are as high as for mainstream candidates from state or public schools. We believe our collegiate system which invests heavily in careful selection of candidates and containing pastoral supports, contributes significantly to this success. Universities can take important steps to improve study support and to disseminate best practice, and government could take further steps to reduce the financial burden on vulnerable students. These developments would help increase retention at the margins.

  15. We have also observed that while applicants to higher education are falling, the decline in applications is almost entering the 16-18 point range. This suggests that many potential students are falling at the first hurdle. This may be because universities are less attractive than alternative choices. In our judgement the financial hardships caused by reduced financial support are the most likely cause.

Dr Peter Slee

University of Durham

January 2001

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