Does UK HE have a retention problem?

Last night I attended an event at King’s College London, hosted by UPP Foundation and Wonkhe, looking at retention issues in UK higher education. The format was a series of initial thoughts from each of 5 panel members, followed by a lively discussion, showing the importance of this topic.

wonkheupp

Richard Brabner

Richard introduced this as the second of three workshops on student journey. He pointed out that  HESA stats on  non-continuation show that this is getting worse, and especially for students from disadvantaged backgrounds. he reminded the audience that in light of this Les Ebdon of OFFA expects next access agreements to focus on retention.

Liz Thomas

Liz stared by explaining that UK figures for retention are in fact much better than most European countries. In those countries with free tuition, then there was a feeling that getting students out of the system was part of the quality system. In awold domintae dby fees and student loans, then this attitude cannot prevail. We admit students to our courses and so we have obligation to help them succeed. So we do have an issue around student success and retention, in particular around differential levels of success, retention and  plus employment outcomes when we consider BME, WP and other factors.

From the HEA/Paul Hamlyn What Works  project it was clear that learning and teaching is critical to student success and retention by building a sense of belonging in the academic sphere. This goes beyond curriculum, but is about the whole institution recognising that it needs to make students successful, and needs to consider role and contribution of all staff.

Sorana Viera

Sorana of the NUS believes that the UK HE does have a retention problem for some groups of students and suggested that an unforeseen consequence of TEF is that game-playing to satisfy the metrics could exacerbate the situation.  The NUS view was that the rushed nature of TEF potentially leaves dangerous holes. Since the key metrics that universities can impact is non continuation then all eyes should be on retention.
Universities should  invest more in those supporting activities that are evidence based, and Soranna cited the What Works project as an example of this. If evidence is presented in accessible ways, then NUS will champion it.

In particular, the impact for commuting students was raised – these are students with financial pressures, family and work commitments, who may have chosen to study at a local university which may not be the right university for them.

Alex Proudfoot

Alex showed that some of the issues for alternative providers are quite different. Students are much more likely to be from a  BME background, or be aged over 30, so these providers are dealing with very different cohorts of students.

A focus for alternative providers was on delivering courses that focus on employability by creating industry links and ultimately an industry community within the college where staff and students might collaborate on projects outside of class.

In terms of pathways and transitions into HE, students who go through the same provider from level 2 and 3 have better retention at HE levels.

For students with low entry qualifications, then classes on study skills are a compulsory part of curriculum, rather than be in an additional optional choice for the student

Ross Renton
Ross highlighted the huge differences in retention and success based on ethnicity. he emphasised the need to develop an understanding who is joining your university or couerse, and developing a relationship with them before they arrive or join the course.

At Hertfordshire they had previously targeted POLAR quintile 1&2 students on entry, and provided peer mentoring plus other additional activity,tailored to each student. Retention figures improved by 43% for these students, and DLHE shows better rate of graduate employment. This intensive personalisation works but is expensive

Ross also highlighted the fact that problems need to be owned by everyone – it’s not a matter of sending a student off to some student hub, but all academic staff need to take ownership. There is also a need to systemise personal tutoring, so that key and meaningful conversations take place at the right times for all students, including at all transition periods, long holidays etc.

In the future Ross saw some risk in being overly focused on the use of metrics and analytics – this is still about people working with people.

Panel Q&A

Key points in the Q&A session were around:

  • How do we support hourly paid lecturers- not delivering HE on the cheap, but supporting the right staff properly
  • The current retention metrics don’t allow for students to step out of HE with interim quals in a flexible framework
  • Staff also need to feel that they belong, so need to consider institutional culture.
    How do you support students through whole institution approach.
  • How can we build success in L&T including retention and success into reward and recognition for staff?
  • How do we making the campus more “sticky” for students living at home? The research on commuting students suggests that these students feel the campus is not for them and they feel marginalised and invisible. Details in prospectus will cover accommodation but not local travel. Universities were often not set up to  support these students, expecting them to be in 4-5 days a week.
  • Tax burden for those who drop out but have student debt – ethics and who should pay? 1 yr of study should be seen as a success
  • Can we use analytics to create better informed interventions as otherwise it is difficult to personalise in mass system without good real time information.

Takeaways

Certain key factors stand out:

  • The need to look carefully at differential retention and success, and to ensure that TEF does not drive perverse behaviours
  • The opportunities to use better analytics to personalise student support
  • The need for rigorous and meaningful personal tutor systems
  • A pressing need to understand how a sticky campus can support commuting students and meeting their specific needs.

 

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