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“Bums on seats”: The government’s cynical view.

Members of the government have revealed their true colours far too often this week in a series of woeful 'faux pas'. One may have flown under the radar, but was noticed in some quarters. In response to news that students from disadvantaged backgrounds are more likely to drop-out of university, the Education Secretary, Damian Hinds added another with universities are only interested in "bums on seats". This will not be likely to be accepted as fair and, along with its irresponsibility, it reveals a superficial attitude to how to help such students.

An eagle-eyed journalist with the Independent Newspaper this week spotted a trend in the latest HESA statistics on student drop-out rates after
first year. ‘Poorer students now even more likely to drop out of university than richer peers Independent 7th March 2019’.
The report is based upon the Higher Education Statistics Agency (HESA) data 2016/17 (HESA Non-continuation: UK Performance Indicators 2016/17) released the day before. It refers to the progress of the intake to universities in the autumn of 2015/16. The overall drop-out rate after one year is reported as 6.4%. However, the rate is higher at 8.6% for students from the lowest participation areas allocated by postcode (These are referred to as the POLAR Version3 Quintile one areas*). The data does not include Scottish Universities that use a different methodology to POLAR in determining low participation areas. The overall rate for the remaining POLAR3 higher participation Quintile areas 2 to 5 is 6.1%. It therefore seems that students from the lowest participation neighbourhoods are more likely to drop out of their studies after one year. However, this situation has persisted for many years as Table 1 shows.

The government response to this.

The response from the Education Secretary of State, Damian Hinds, is however astounding. He is reported as saying that that “the figures suggest that some institutions are only interested in “bums on seats”, rather than offering all-round support for students.” This is a totally unprofessional response to a matter that should be taken more seriously. Attacking universities in this unspecified manner simply trashes the reputation of UK universities wider afield. It serves to undermine the efforts of many individual staff helping individual students. It serve no practical purpose.

He then goes onto say that “every step we make on access is undermined if a larger number of students then drop out of their courses. No student starts university thinking they are going to drop out and, whilst in individual circumstances that may be the right thing, it is important that all students feel supported to do their best – both academically and in a pastoral sense.” Again, the implication is that UK universities are generally failing and not doing enough. He might be better advised to turn his attention to failed government policy over many years and take responsibility rather than shifting blame for there being more interest in “bums on seats”.

Rates of drop-out across the universities.

The drop-out rate after one year varies considerable across the universities. This is perhaps not very surprising. Again, the examples shown here cover all of the UK apart from Scotland. It should be tacitly accepted by government, and others alike, that university staff try their best to support students. The individual circumstances of students can vary greatly as a combination of their a
spirations, motivation and the pressures they are under. However, a first consideration in relation to drop-out rates might be the previous attainment of the students. TEFS has been analysing the drop-out rates for some time when looking for trends.

A good example is in Figure 1 that shows the tariff entry grades for different universities against the drop-out rates for students from POLAR Quintile 1 areas. The average entry tariff points are taken from the Complete University Guide 2018 using the older UCAS tariff calculation methodology. The size of the spheres is in proportion to the total number of POLAR Quintile 1 student intake. They have been grouped into Russell Group, Pre92 and post92 institutions for easy comparison.

It is worth mentioning here that, under the old UCAS tariff point system, the minimum of 3 Ds at A-Level, leaked as a minimum standard from Augar, comes to 180 points. Although some universities may take a small number of students at or below this level, the means for the institutions are well above that. Augar may have considered this.

The first thing to note is that there are still very low numbers of students from the lowest participation areas and this is especially the case for the elite Russell group universities. There has been only marginal improvement over many years and reflects little action taken by government to help such students. Of those that go to university, most enter the post-92 institutions. The second observation is that drop-out rates are generally very low across most universities and this success might be applauded more. However, there are generally much lower drop-out rates in institutions with higher tariff point entry standards. The main outliers are Oxford and Cambridge where only 80 and 85 students respectively entered from POLAR Quintile 1 areas and none dropped out. Some other outliers are institutions where few students were from low participation areas yet there were high drop-out rates. However these are thankfully fewer and minority exceptions.

Attainment and drop-out rates.

The data suggests that one of the strongest factors in students dropping-out is their previous attainment. There are fewer drop-outs amongst students with high tariff points. However, the dilemma for staff designing and delivering courses in the front line is maintaining high standards whilst also helping students from diverse academic backgrounds to succeed. For science courses, the increasing technological complexities and demands are moving fast and it all adds to the pressure to maintain standards at an international level. The trend in Figure 1 suggests that standards are generally holding up across our institutions but there are academic ‘casualties’ along the way. When the student number cap was removed, this must have been expected to happen. The fact that there isn’t a greater drop-out rate is a success.

Why do students drop-out?

The assertion by Hinds that no “student starts university thinking that they are going to drop out” is not tenable and is certainly not based upon evidence. I have direct experience of students that started university unsure that they would continue. Thus, his statement cannot be correct. Some students start university unsure from the outset. The reasons can be varied. They may feel that their education and attainment may not be enough to see them through. Their subjects at A-Level may not match the degree course expectations and they have much to catch up on compared to their peers. They may have little or no family support and are close to the edge financially. They may find that time is a factor in balancing part-time work with studies. The debt burden may seem too much if their progress suggest that a lower class degree is all they might achieve. Finally they may find that they are simply in the wrong degree pathway and have lost interest. These are all valid and logical reasons why a student might feel they cannot continue.

What is the objective when supporting students?

One thing is certain. Setting out with the aim of making sure a student stays at a university, when it may be in their best interest to withdraw, should never be the objective. That tactic, if applied, would certainly amount to a 'bums on seats' mentality. My experience has been very different. Instead, discussing the various options and pressures might lead to suggesting that withdrawal is the best option. Sometimes I have found it necessary to ask a student to consider spreading a year over two years to relieve the pressure of finance and part-time working. This is because the welfare of the student is paramount. However, there are still numerous problems. Many universities overlook the crucial role of families in providing support and financial assistance. Those that are estranged, or have little or no support, are under the most pressure. The work of the
charity Stand Alone has been very effective in bringing the issues to the fore at many universities. However, there are still too many that have not signed up to the Stand Alone Pledge to support such students. This would be a good start in setting a minimum support standard for all students equally and government might set this out more effectively.

Government must take responsibility and act decisively.

With the Augar review on hold and speculation mounting, it seems that our university system is in danger of floundering. Yet the government seems intent on shifting blame onto the institutions that were encouraged to take more students in the past. That some students drop-out is inevitable. The government must take responsibility for the situation and act decisively. Shifting more resource onto improving the lives and attainment of students in lower participation neighbourhoods would be a better strategy for government. Then supporting them more when at university through maintenance grants and affordable accommodation. This would release more time for them to study effectively. Anyone who has helped students knows that making more time for those working part-time or commuting from home is not easy. Anything else risks compromising the high standards that universities must achieve to stay internationally competitive.

Mike Larkin, retired from Queen's University Belfast after 37 years teaching Microbiology, Biochemistry and Genetics.

*POLAR refers to Participation of Local Areas and there are now four versions. The data used here is based upon POLAR Version 3. The POLAR3 classification is formed by ranking 2001 Census Area Statistics (CAS) wards by their young participation rates for the combined 2005 to 2009 cohorts. This gives five quintile groups of areas ordered from ‘1’ (those wards with the lowest participation) to ‘5’ (those wards with the highest participation), each representing 20 per cent of UK young cohort. Students have been allocated to the neighbourhoods on the basis of their postcode. Those students whose postcode falls within wards with the lowest participation (quintile 1) are denoted as being from a low participation neighbourhood. See HESA Definitions and benchmark factors: definitions.


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