Select Committee on Public Accounts Tenth Report

Conclusions and recommendations

1.  Since the Committee last reported in 2002 there has been no reduction in the percentage of students in England not completing their higher education course at their original institution: the figure remains at 22%. The UK has a higher estimated national graduation rate than most other Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development countries, but actions to improve retention have had little overall effect. Universities need to concentrate their efforts on actions most likely to be successful. The Funding Council should systematically evaluate the cost-effectiveness and impact of initiatives that it has directly funded. It should also provide guidance to universities on how best to assess the costs and outcomes of local initiatives.

2.  Increasing and widening participation in higher education attracts more students from under-represented groups who are more likely to withdraw from courses early. These students may need more support to complete their courses. Universities need to understand the needs of their changing student populations. They should use market research techniques such as customer segmentation to help them provide teaching and support services which appropriately reflect students' different cultural, social and economic backgrounds, for example through flexible timetabling of lectures. The Funding Council should disseminate the lessons from its proposed review of the differences between universities in the proportions of students receiving Disabled Students' Allowances.

3.  There is wide variation in universities' performance in the continuation of students to a second year of study. In 2004-05, five universities achieved a continuation rate in excess of 97% for full-time, first-degree students, whereas 12 had continuation rates below 87%. Russell Group universities tend to have higher rates of retention than other types of university. For those universities with consistently low retention rates the Funding Council's regional teams should agree specific improvement plans. The Funding Council should encourage universities with better retention to share good practice with those that are less successful.

4.  Universities can lose funding if they retain fewer students than expected, but can avoid this sanction by recruiting more students. Where a university with low retention seeks to maintain its student population through recruitment, the Funding Council should agree clear expectations for planned improvements in retention in the university's improvement plan, to be met irrespective of any changes in levels of recruitment.

5.  Only around half of part-time students obtain a qualification within six years and there is no specific framework to encourage improvement. The Funding Council should develop and publish indicators so that prospective part-time students can compare universities' retention of students who are unable to, or prefer not to, study full time.

6.  The first-year continuation rate in Mathematical Science, Computing and Engineering subjects is three percentage points below the national average for all subjects. Such subjects are of strategic importance to the nation's economic development, so universities need to have well developed outreach programmes with schools. Programmes could include running summer schools for prospective students in these subjects and offering mentoring to help prepare students so that they are encouraged to apply and more likely to succeed.

7.  Some students feel that academic and pastoral support is limited and does not meet their needs. Universities should give personal tutoring a sufficiently high priority, with training and support to help tutors to be fully effective in their role. Reward systems for academic staff should give sufficient recognition to performance in respect of personal tuition.

8.  Information on why students withdraw from their courses is not reliable. Although some data is collected nationally it is often incomplete and inconsistent. Little is known, for example, as to the extent to which mental or physical illness or domestic circumstances contribute to withdrawal. The Funding Council together with the Higher Education Statistics Agency and universities should develop a common standard and principles which define the types of retention information which need to be collected and reported.

9.  There are substantial variations between universities in the proportions of students with disabilities that receive the Disabled Students' Allowances. The Department and the Funding Council are responding to this issue by centralising the team that administers the Allowances. The Department should aim to make access straightforward and fair for all, and the Funding Council should follow up at university-level if its forthcoming research indicates that eligible students are missing out on their entitlement.

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