My absence from the blogosphere has been enforced by the start of the new academic year: courses to run, classes to teach, new names to learn, bureaucratic kinks to iron out. It’s been a breathless few weeks.
Today I’m turning my pen/keyboard to student drop-out rates, or from the other side of the coin, retention or ‘degree completion’ – those who start uni and don’t finish it. It may seem like an odd topic to write about at the beginning of the year, but I’ve been mulling this one over for several months. It comes up at conferences, contributes to some rankings, and universities talk about it internally. It’s becoming a hot topic, not least because it may feature in some way on the impending Teaching Excellence Framework (TEF) that will ‘measure’ the standards of teaching in every university in the UK.
I’m continually struck by the fact that, in the UK, drop-out is seen almost universally as a Very Bad Thing. Of course, in our era of vanishing state funding for students and rising tuition fees, universities take a hit on the bottom line whenever a student fails to finish their degree. Those students are also saddled with a debt and no qualification. However, what concerns me here is that high drop-out/low retention rates are often taken as a reflection of poor teaching quality – that students only drop out if you’re not engaging them and supporting them in their studies, an assumption that is a huge, often unjustified, leap.
Anecdotally, two of my tutorial students last year were enjoying the course, were enthusiastic in class and scoring well, but came to realise that they wanted to study something else and/or live closer to home. There was no sense that they were unhappy with the teaching or university more broadly, or that we’d misled them about the course in any way. It just hadn’t worked out, and I couldn’t, with a clear conscience, have tried to persuade them to stay. After a frank discussion of the pros and cons of leaving us and going ahead with what they were planning, I agreed that they were probably better off trying something else, and wished them well. There’s nothing wrong with going to university, giving it a go, and deciding that the course, university, lifestyle, or city are simply not your thing.
On the national level, there is some evidence that retention is better at high status universities. We might think that this is because their teaching is better, but there’s no evidence for this unless we take that blind leap of faith. It may be more connected with the observation that students at high status universities tend to come from middle class backgrounds. They are therefore, as a group, more culturally prepared for university at home and school, would almost certainly have taken an academic rather than vocational entry route, and experience less of a shock at the change in teaching culture. They are also better off, so financial concerns are less prevalent. Universities in the middle to bottom half of rankings tend to recruit more students from less affluent backgrounds who are more likely to have financial concerns and be less culturally and academically prepared for university. They will also have lower grades, on the whole, so might lack in intellectual confidence but not necessarily ability. What we might see in the TEF, though, if it is heavily weighted towards retention rates, is that the highly ranked universities will look better simply by dint of who they recruit. This would suit those already at the top on other measures, of course, but it would be a travesty that unfairly widened the status divides.
It is illustrative to compare retention in the UK with the way that it is seen in countries like Belgium and Germany. There, high drop-outs rates are a mark of a high quality, of strong academic rigour. Courses are set up to be very difficult and those who make the cut and complete it earn a cachet. The countries that apply this ‘alternative’ logic have open admissions systems, so almost anyone can study any subject provided they have reasonable upper secondary qualifications. Courses are often hugely oversubscribed at the beginning, and relatively low levels of support and hard exams are a way of winnowing down the numbers, perhaps inequitably in some cases. In the UK, admission numbers are controlled, we admit those who we think can cope with the course intellectually, and there is usually a good deal of academic support. The comparison in some ways is therefore not altogether fair, but it is interesting to see how the principle is applied ‘in reverse’ in some countries. We should not be making courses easy in the interests of retaining students, but at the same time not set most of them up for a fall, either. Studying for a degree is very much about developing, and struggling with the course material forms a foundation stone of that development. There must be a balance between support, standards, and rigour, but how that balance is established clearly varies between countries.
It may be true that teaching has taken a back seat to research in the UK status game, and in some senses a renewed focus on it can only benefit students and the sector more generally. But it should be remembered that most academics in the UK are qualified to teach in HE and are committed to teaching well. There are also internal mechanisms such as staff-student liaison committees which can raise issues in provision that departments can then address. In the event that teaching is poor and it causes people to leave, then this is clearly an issue, but at the moment we don’t know the extent of the problem, or whether there is even a problem at all. There is an argument that TEF is an expensive and pointless exercise, but the suspicion is that it is more about trying to enforce more of a market culture into UK HE than genuinely trying to drive standards up.
Either way, what is missing at the moment is detailed information – sectorally or within universities – as to why students drop out. Unless we collect this data, raw retention rates run the risk of falling into the same category as most other numerical measures of relative status – a weak proxy. The problem is though, over time, people tend to forget that these are crude measures, and retention will become – wrongly – synonymous in public perception as an accurate reflection of teaching quality.