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


Memorandum from Dr Geoffrey Copland, Coalition of Modern Universities (HE 130)

  The Coalition of Modern Universities (CMU) welcomes the opportunity to submit evidence to the Select Committee investigation into issues concerning student retention in higher education. We strongly support the submission given by Universities UK and wish to supplement that submission with some specific points derived from our experiences as the universities that have particular experience of mature students and those who are targeted by the recent initiatives to widen participation.

  There are many, often interlocking reasons why students leave degree courses before gaining a degree. These can be loosely classed as academic, financial, institutional and social. The evidence given below is based in part on research into the reasons for non-continuation in one of our member universities as revealed by follow up questionnaires after they have discontinued their registration.


  1.  It is important to recognise that there is a progressive move away from the traditional full-time degree programme, as identified by Universities UK. As financial issues become more significant, particularly for non-traditional students, more are taking the opportunity offered by credit-based degree structures to switch between full and part-time modes of study, and between employment and study as circumstances dictate. The greater use of Credit Accumulation and Transfer (CATS) assists this, with students interrupting study for a period before returning either to the original institution or another one, carrying academic credit with them. Also some students use the opportunity to leave their programme at an intermediate stage, with a Certificate or Diploma of Higher Education. The National Qualifications Framework, recently published by the Quality Assurance Agency (QAA), recognises this pattern and offers a clearly defined structure in which it can sit. For many of the students who opt for these intermediate qualifications, this represents an achieved outcome to meet their needs and should not be regarded as non-retention on degree courses. Nearly 50 per cent of non-continuing students in one university were planning to continue study at another institution or to return to continue at a later date at the original institution.

  2.  Some students enter higher education ill prepared for what they will experience. Many lack the necessary study skills for the independent study required of students. Particular examples are inadequate academic literacy and numeracy skills. These problems arise with school leavers as well as mature entrants. It has always been so, but with increasing pressures on university resources, there may be less opportunity to identify and give the necessary individual attention to students lacking those skills than has been the case in the past. Just as there is now insistence on HE preparing students for work, so there should be greater insistence on schools and FE preparing students better for HE. There are various existing programmes designed to do this, with HE help and these should be used as exemplars of good practice for wider use.

  3.  Some students realise that they have made the wrong choice of subject or of institution in which to study it. This is not a new phenomenon, but is becoming more serious when compounded with the other pressures facing students. The student may reach the conclusion because of change of career aspiration. Students may not be receiving adequate career advice at the school or college level, may be overly influenced by peers and parents or may not have researched adequately the demands of a subject. Some of the students for whom this is particularly acute may have taken a place in UCAS Clearing that had not been properly researched from the aspects of subject choice or location and style of university. This happens in all universities.

  4.  Some students cannot complete programmes because of academic failure, but the evidence is that this is often not simply intellectual inadequacy but brought about by a number of factors, including poor motivation partly arising from poor decisions as outlined above. This can be exacerbated by poor study skills leading to poor achievement, in turn resulting in lower self esteem.


  5.  There is no doubt that financial problems concern many students. They may be the direct cause of withdrawal or they may be a contributory factor in a complex set of issues. In one university, a small scale survey showed that 72 per cent of those giving reasons for withdrawal in 1999-2000 had financial difficulties, compared with 45 per cent in 1996-7. Of these 68 per cent stated that "the need for paid work made study impossible". There is no doubt that the erosion and removal of maintenance grant has accelerated this. This appears to be a more significant factor than tuition fees. Over the period 1996 to 2000 the number of students taking paid employment has risen from 50 per cent to 90 per cent and of these many are effectively working full time, often at night, while studying, in term time and vacations. This clearly has a serious impact upon the ability of such students to study effectively. The need to work correlates closely with socio-economic backgrounds of these students, giving them a double disadvantage as they often come from families with no tradition of higher education and who cannot afford to assist them financially. This also impacts upon these students socially as they find it hard to make and sustain friendships and a social life within the university community.

  6.  Lack of affordable accommodation in many city centres, particularly in London, is a major factor, with students moving further out to live but then having to sustain increased travel costs. Increasing numbers live in the family home. This often reduces direct costs but, particularly among the lower socio-economic groups this provides challenges to find adequate study conditions at home and may exacerbate the tensions facing the student.

  7.  The change of financial support arrangements for students has undoubtedly caused difficulties. Some of these are more perceived than real but the effect is often the same. Students report that stories of large and increasing student debt by the media have influenced them to consider opting out even though they may not themselves at that stage of debt. Coupled with full employment, this means that students are more tempted to take offers of a full time job if offered at the time than completing studies with the perceived risk of large debt when graduating.

  8.  There is clear evidence that student fee debt contributes to the financial burdens on students. This in turn impacts on HEIs who have to enforce collection of fees. This can lead to students having to be excluded from study because of unpaid debt to the HEI.

  9.  The various forms of student hardship and targeted funds being made available to students by government are complicated and some in most need do not take advantage of them, despite the efforts by universities to help them identify possible sources of support. A more coherent and simpler system of support for the most economically vulnerable students would help them, and the universities that have to administer these funds. The late announcements of some of these funds increase the difficulty in reaching the target students.


  10.  There are clear messages coming from students that they need greater support by their universities, particularly in the early stages of their academic careers. Students are often ill prepared for large classes and independent study, particularly if they are from low aspirational backgrounds as identified by widening participation initiatives. Post 92 universities have a much greater proportion of such students than more traditional universities.

  11.  The decline of unit of resource for institutions over the last decade has had a major impact upon the resources available to institutions to provide the level of support to students on an individual basis that can be key to student retention and success. This bears most heavily upon post 92 universities which have larger proportions of low participation neighbourhood students.

  12.  The funding premium allocated by HEFCE for low participation neighbourhood students does not meet the additional cost of the necessary tutorial and study skills support that a significant number of these students need to establish themselves in the higher education community. Once established, and given the high degree of motivation often shown by such students, they can perform very well. Universities have adopted a number of strategies to help to overcome initial disadvantages, including special support for study methods, academic literacy and information technology and communication (ITC) skills. ITC can pose particular problems for mature students from the lower socio-economic group who may well not have ready access to good quality facilities off campus and may not have had a strong grounding in IT techniques at earlier stages of their education. This imposes extra costs on universities to provide additional support and resources to ensure that these students are not disadvantaged.

  13.  We have found that these students also often need initial advice and support to identify all sources of financial support open to them and to manage their affairs effectively. There is strong evidence that the availability of adequate and immediate advice can help to restore confidence in difficult times, particularly with non-traditional students who have little opportunity to share their concerns with family and friends with experience of higher education. Initiatives such as mentoring, student ambassadors and peer advice help to support and sustain students who are experiencing transition and confidence problems.

  14.  These students are crucial to the attainment of the government's aim for increased participation and experience shows that they can be highly successful. But early support and intervention is necessary. The HEFCE funding premium does not meet the additional costs, particularly when the numbers of students needing support is not small and marginal. The way that Widening Participation is funded at present places universities in a "Catch 22" situation. They are encouraged to recruit students from low participation backgrounds but the premium is inadequate to support students properly. There is increasing evidence that outreach schemes that raise students' aspirations, attainment and understanding of higher education before entry have a positive impact on retention rates. However when funding is limited, the first obligation of universities is towards their existing students and there is a strong inclination to reduce the outreach work that may bring more students who may have special needs. Short term fire fighting wins over long term investment in improvement.

  Post 92 universities with their larger number of low participation students and overall smaller resources available find the cost of support for such students particularly difficult to meet.

  15.  There is strong evidence that an effective way to help the transition of students into university is to provide pre-entry contact and advice and strong support during induction and the first few crucial weeks from both academic and administrative staff. Students also stress the need for social integration to help them settle into university. This can be difficult for students who do not live on campus or in other university accommodation and who have existing family and social commitments. The diversity of student age, experience and social experience can be particularly daunting for those who feel generally insecure. Universities need to be aware of these issues and try to arrange pre-entry and induction activities to help establish supportive contacts.


  Not all students will complete courses for which they have enrolled. Causes of non-continuation are complex and rarely attributable to a single issue. There is evidence that students who come from non-traditional backgrounds and lower socio-economic groups are more vulnerable than those who come from backgrounds with experience of higher education. The more vulnerable students will respond to carefully structured advice and support and once established can be very successful.

  Financial worries and perceptions of potential financial burdens can lead to decisions to discontinue. There are many cases of very severe financial difficulties which are disabling to students. The complex system of financial support, bursaries and hardship funds needs to be simplified to support the best efforts of university staff to provide advice on these matters.

  Full-time students are taking on increasing amounts of paid work to support themselves while studying. This can have a serious effect upon academic performance.

  Students may transfer from full time study to part-time study, sometimes after a period away from study. They may transfer to different programmes or institutions using Credit Transfer.

  Students may choose to discontinue to take up permanent employment, particularly in the light of media stories of potential high indebtedness.

  Universities can help students to succeed through carefully planned pre-entry and induction programmes, and by providing support for higher education study skills.

  Inadequate career advice prior to entry to higher education can lead to inappropriate choice of course or institution which can lead to drop out.

  Funding premia to universities for students who are non-traditional entrants do not meet the cost of properly structured programmes to provide and adequate transition into higher education and follow-up support.

  Support for study skills and particularly for ICT use and resources for mature and less well off students is necessary but expensive.

  Student non-completion is a serious matter for both the student and the university. It is taken seriously but often needs additional resources to provide adequate support for prevention.

Dr Geoffrey Copland

Chair, Coalition of Modern Universities

January 2001

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