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


Memorandum from the University of Wolverhampton (HE 134)

  1. The University of Wolverhampton welcomes the opportunity to bring the following observations and statistics to the attention of the Select Committee as part of its contribution to the Committee's discussion regarding issues affecting student retention in UK Higher Education.

  2. The University is concerned about rates of student withdrawal and has developed a student support strategy which addresses the need to identify the most vulnerable groups and individuals as early as possible and concentrate material, emotional and learning support resources accordingly.

  3. The University has witnessed growth in a range of pressures which collectively and individually induce withdrawal decisions especially amongst particularly vulnerable groups which, due to the University's successful pursuit of Government supported access, widening participation and lifelong learning objectives, constitute a large and growing proportion of its student population.

  4. The steady decline in the numbers of mature students applying to University has been a direct consequence of the abolition of grants and the introduction of loans and fees. UCAS statistics for year 2000 entry report a levelling off of this trend but only with regard to those over 25 years of age "accepting" a place. The number of mature "applicants" remains down by around 5 per cent. Even amongst those accepting a place, the number of males over 25 years of age has continued to decline.

  5. For those mature students who do enter HE, the situation as far as financial support is concerned, is inadequate and confusing. Bursaries for mature students with dependants, payable to those entering in autumn 2000, have now disappeared. So, for their second year studies, these students must negotiate a complex procedure of means tested Childcare Grants administered not by the Universities, but by their LEAs. If a student is awarded the Childcare Grant (max £150 per week per child) they will no longer be able to claim the lone parent grant. The cost of full-time childcare is now around £80.00 per week.

  6. Mature students without dependants have no dedicated financial assistance other than the normal loans, the Mature Students' Allowance having been abolished some time ago.

  7. Mature students often bring debt with them since many may be re-entering full-time education due to redundancy and the need to follow different career paths.

  8. The recent survey conducted by researchers at South Bank University (published December 2000) showed that women students with dependants were the least able to take up part-time employment with rates of pay that would make a material difference when one subtracts the cost of childcare.

  9. The University had allocated £364,000 in means tested Mature Students' Bursaries by October 2000 (up to £1,000 per student). Many of these students may struggle to complete their courses despite additional support available through Hardship Funds and Loans.

  10. The need to supplement income by working part-time during term time is being felt by a growing proportion of "full-time" students. The University of Wolverhampton's on campus Job Shop had 1,156 full-time students registered for part-time work at January 2001. The number of students seeking part-time employment has increased by 75 per cent over the last three years. The South Bank survey showed that these working students would be predominantly those from lower socio/economic groups who would be receiving little if any parental or family support.

  11. As far back as 1996 the GMB/NUS "Students at work" survey demonstrated that 40 per cent of students were employed during term time and working an average of 12.5 hours per week. A Unison survey published in January 2001, to coincide with the launch of a Student Employee Support Web Site, put the proportion of students taking up part-time work during the academic year at 75 per cent with an average of 20 hours per week.

  12. The UK has the highest rates of working students in Europe and the Office of National Statistics predicts that by 2006, 50 per cent of all under 20s in the labour force will be students.

  13. The correlation between the need to undertake a substantial amount of paid work and poor academic performance and progression is obvious. Students are struggling with financial pressures, particularly the need to keep accumulated debt at a manageable level, and pressure to perform well academically and meet assessment deadlines.

  14. A University Life Survey conducted by the University of Wolverhampton Students' Union in December 2000 shows that 50 per cent of students sampled saw "money and debt" as the main threat to their successfully completing their course. The need to meet academic deadlines was cited as the second most serious threat.

  15. The NUS Student Hardship Survey 1999 found that 73.3 per cent of full-time undergraduates were in debt (and 76.5 per cent of postgraduates). The level of accumulated debt is significant averaging between £8,000 and £13,000. Debt aversion is having an impact on application rates. The survey on take up of Student Loans conducted by South Bank (December 2000) showed that of 2000 students surveyed, 60 per cent know of friends who had been put off entry to higher education by the prospect of debt. A UCAS survey of those who opted to defer entry into higher education for a year showed that the need to earn money prior to embarking upon full-time study was a major reason underpinning the decision. Many of those who withdraw from courses may have a similar motivation with the intention of returning later or continuing studies on a part-time basis. Hard evidence to support this is difficult to accumulate since, in our experience at Wolverhampton, withdrawing students are reluctant to be specific about the reasons for leaving. Many see leaving because of financial pressure as carrying a stigma and prefer to disappear quietly. The University systematically carries out "exit polling" procedures but this produces a very low response rate.

  16. The University of Wolverhampton Students' Union Welfare and Advice Service dealt with 1,451 financial hardship related cases between February 1999 and August 2000 representing 42% of its total case load. The University's professional Student Counselling Service has reported a 20 per cent increase in referrals where students are presenting with stress related to work load (both academic and domestic) and financial pressure.

  17. The University's Student Financial Support Unit which administers the Institution's Hardship Funds, reported a doubling in the number of applications for assistance and awards made between September and December 2000 (1,500 cases resulting in 800 awards).

  In summary:

    —  The new Student Financial Support regime is debt dependent and extremely complex.

    —  At the same time institutions are encouraged eg by the payment of premium funding based on post code analysis, to promote the benefits of higher education to disadvantaged and financially vulnerable groups.

    —  Due to absolute necessity as well as debt aversion students are undertaking paid term time work well in excess of the maximum 15 hours per week recommended by the 80 on-campus student employment bureaus (Job Shops) across the country.

    —  Universities are driven by stringent quality assurance regimes to demand high and consistent academic performance levels with perhaps additional pressures imposed by Semester based systems which assess twice a year.

  These factors combine to make increased withdrawals and lower retention levels inevitable in those institutions dedicated to a mass higher education agenda but which, at the same time, attain higher levels of social inclusion and added value.

University of Wolverhampton

January 2001

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