Select Committee on Public Accounts Tenth Report

1  National progress in improving retention

1. Around 28,000 full-time and 87,000 part-time students starting first-degree courses in 2004-05 were no longer in higher education a year later. Among full-time students starting in 2004-05, 91.6% entered a second year of study, and 78.1% were expected to complete their courses.

2. In comparison with most other nations, students in the United Kingdom are more likely to complete their course in higher education. According to Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development statistics, in 2004 the United Kingdom had the fifth highest estimated graduation rate. There are some simplifications in these estimations, however, and higher education systems vary between countries.[3]

3. Although by international standards student retention rates in England are relatively high, they have flat-lined in recent years with little improvement since the Committee last reported on this subject in 2002 (Figure 1).[4] To help improve retention and participation, over the last five years universities have received around £800 million in funding for recruiting the types of students who are likely to need more support to complete their studies.[5] Retention rates have not improved, though participation in higher education has been increased from around 40% of 18-30 year olds in 2001-02 to nearly 43% in 2005-06.[6] Government priorities have required universities to maintain and increase retention while also increasing and widening participation.[7]

Figure 1: Continuation and expected completion rates (full-time, first-degree students), 1999-2000 to 2004-05

Source: Higher Education Statistics Agency's and Higher Education Funding Council for England's performance indicators

4. Continuation rates are higher in absolute terms for students in England (91.6%) than in Scotland (89.3%), Wales (89.7%) and Northern Ireland (89.7%).[8] There are, however, differences in pre-entry qualifications, educational structures, finance and types of students. For example, students in Scotland tend to be younger and have different qualifications when they enter higher education and study courses that take longer.[9]

5. Higher tuition fees were introduced in England in 2006-07. In that year, most universities charged full-time undergraduates £3,000 a year. Funding is available to students through low interest loans, and those from low income families have access to maintenance grants and to their university's bursary scheme. It is too early to say whether higher tuition fees are having an effect on retention.[10] An independent commission will be established in 2009 to examine the impact of the tuition fees regime, as part of the terms of reference set out in 2004. Its remit will include the impact on continuation to a second year of study as well as completion of studies.[11]

6. Success in increasing and widening participation means reaching out to students from backgrounds without a family or school tradition of participation in higher education. These students are, on average, more likely to withdraw and, in recruiting them, the sector and individual universities run the risk of reducing overall retention rates.[12] The Department recognises the tension between widening participation and non-completion, and the Government's previous target required progress on both retention and participation.[13] In recent years, retention has held up while participation has increased and the Funding Council sees no reason to think that the retention rates will fall as further progress is made towards 50% participation.[14]

3   C&AG's Report, para 1.12; Figure 10 Back

4   Qq 1, 86; C&AG's Report, para 1.10, Figure 8  Back

5   Q 42; C&AG's Report, para 2.10 Back

6   C&AG's Report, para 5; Figure 4 Back

7   C&AG's Report, para 1.8 Back

8   C&AG's Report, Figure 9 Back

9   Qq 31-32, 125-128; Ev 35, 37 Back

10   Qq 127, 163; C&AG's Report, paras 5, 3.20 Back

11   Q 164 Back

12   Q 131; C&AG's Report, Figure 16; HM Treasury, Back

13   Q 16 Back

14   Q 56 Back

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