Committee of Public Accounts: Press Notice

STAYING THE COURSE: THE RETENTION OF STUDENTS ON HIGHER EDUCATION COURSES

Publication of the Committee's 10th Report, Session 2007-08

Edward Leigh MP, Chairman of the Committee of Public Accounts, today said:

"It is five years on from our last report on student retention but the percentage of students dropping-out from their original universities has not budged from 22 per cent. This is despite some £800 million being paid to universities over the same period to help retain students most likely to withdraw from courses early.

"To be fair to the universities, they are expected to improve retention figures while increasing and widening participation. More students are being recruited from backgrounds and schools where university was not previously thought to be an option. But these are the very students who are more likely to leave early. Universities must get better at providing the kind of teaching and support services that students from under-represented groups need.

"There is also still a great disparity in the performance of individual universities in the rate at which students continue to a second year of study. What is missing in many institutions is the kind of comprehensive and reliable management information, including data on the reasons why students leave, upon which decisions on how to improve retention can be based. Personal tuition and pastoral care should also be given a higher priority and appropriate resources, especially as many universities are large and can be impersonal."

Mr Leigh was speaking as the Committee published its 10th Report of this Session which, on the basis of evidence from the Department for Innovation, Universities and Skills and from the Higher Education Funding Council for England, examined their role in improving retention, progress by Universities and at a national level, and variations in the retention of different groups of students.

Around 28,000 full-time and 87,000 part-time students who started first-degree courses in 2004-05 were no longer in higher education a year later. Among the full-time students, 91.6% entered a second year of study, and 78.1% were expected to complete. There has been little improvement in retention since 2001-02, though participation in higher education has increased from around 40% to nearly 43% of 18-30 year olds. To help improve retention and participation, over the last five years universities (for this report, 'universities' means all higher education institutions) have received around £800 million as part of their teaching funding to help retain students who are the most likely to withdraw early.

The Department for Innovation, Universities and Skills has overall responsibility for public spending on higher education in England. The Higher Education Funding Council for England (the Funding Council) promotes and funds teaching and some research to help the higher education sector meet the diverse needs of students, the economy and society.

The Committee reported on widening participation and improving retention in higher education in 2002. It concluded there was a need for improvement in several areas relating to student retention: reducing the wide variation in universities' retention rates; funding to support students from low-income backgrounds; tackling skills gaps; supporting students with disabilities; and information for potential students. The National Audit Office has examined the progress in improving retention since 2002.

In 2004-05, the performance gap on retention rates between universities remained as wide as it was in 2002. Five universities achieved a continuation rate in excess of 97% for full-time, first-degree students, whereas 12 had continuation rates below 87%. Because of difficulties in interpreting data there are no indicators for part-time students, though there are increasing numbers of such students, only half of whom obtain a qualification within six years. Published performance indicators for universities can provide an incentive to perform well because they affect universities' reputations and their ability to recruit students.

There is much that universities can do to improve retention. They need good quality management information including on the reasons for leaving. They can provide additional academic support for students, for example for those struggling with the mathematical elements of their course. Student access to tutors who can provide pastoral and academic support is important, especially as the numbers of students entering higher education institutions increases.