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Turn up, log in, drop out…… suspend studies? UPDATE: It seems we don't know.

UPDATE 23rd December 2020

The SLC has responded to TEFS regarding the numbers of students who have suspended their studies in academic year 2020/21. It seems they hold data on the numbers of students who suspend their funding. This would include many who have suspended their studies for a variety of reasons. But the SLC do not want to release this data. The full impact of the COVID crisis on students across the UK  is therefore not known. However, universities will have this information locally. TEFS is therefore proceeding with a Freedom of Information request.

The full response is here.

"SLC does not hold data on students suspending their studies. SLC systems do record funding suspensions; however, funding suspensions may be applied to the customer’s account for a number of reasons, not just study suspensions. The specific reasons for funding suspensions are not recorded, therefore it is not possible to provide aggregate data on study suspensions. To be clear, the data we hold on funding suspensions would be misleading if used as a proxy for study suspensions, and therefore SLC does not intend to release this.

SLC does not routinely issue data on withdrawal notifications but published an ad hoc release ‘Early-in-Year Student Withdrawal Notifications Academic Year 2018/19 to 2020/21’ to provide a high level view of current withdrawal data due to significant public interest in this Academic Year as a result of the disruption caused by COVID-19.

I am sorry we were not able to be of further assistance to you at this time".

Original post.

Yesterday the Student Loans Company (SLC) released early data on the numbers of students who have ‘withdrawn’ from their degree courses up to the end of November. The headline news is there are fewer than in the same period in the previous two years. After many concerns and warnings about the likelihood of large numbers of students deferring their university place or withdrawing later, it seems this is welcome news. It can be partly explained by the simple fact that there are few jobs, and they might feel they have little choice. However, there may be other simpler explanations. Firstly, there is still plenty of time this term for students to decide they no longer wish to continue. Secondly, those in difficulty for whatever reason will have been advised to consider ‘suspending’ their studies with a view to continuing in twelve months. This is the ‘sting in the tail’ since the SLC decided not to release this data. It is disappointing and a serious omission that might be hiding an exodus of many more students from their courses. 

The title paraphrases the slogan ‘Turn on, tune in, drop out’ coined by Harvard psychologist, Timothy Leary, in very different times back in 1967. The ideas of the counterculture movement seem distant today for students who are more worried about their future. The modern equivalent seems to apply as courses move online. 

However, the latest data from the SLC shows that fewer students are ‘dropping out’ of their courses this term, suggesting greater resilience amongst students than was at first expected. Their short report ‘Early-in-Year Student Withdrawal Notifications’ was released yesterday and covers the period to the end of November in academic years 2018/19 to 2020/21. It is still labelled ‘Official Sensitive’ since it was sent to all the UK governments in advance. It is hardly sensitive now unless something was later removed before release. 

This is an unscheduled release of data that is not normally reported at this time but is helpful in revealing how students might be coping with the COVID crisis. The numbers withdrawing in 2018/19 were reported as 5,870, rising to 6,113 in 2019/20. The surprise is the number has dropped to 5,448 in 2020/21. The data reflects ‘notifications’ from each university to the SLC of what is defined as “A withdrawal applies if the student leaves and does not intend to re-engage in their course”. This specifically excludes any suspension of studies or temporary withdrawal. 

The ‘sting in the tail’. 

This is hidden in the report under ‘Caveats and Data Definitions’ that states, “Notifications which are marked as ‘Suspended’ are also not included”. It seems the SLC has decided not to release this data early. Caution is also urged in interpreting the data with “irregularities may have resulted in HEPs providing withdrawal notifications to SLC later. Therefore, while the two previous years’ data has been provided for comparison, any conclusions should be made with caution noting the irregularities of this academic year and the early in-year nature of the data sets”. Indeed, any conclusion at this point could be grossly misleading if many more students are still considering withdrawal. There is still time for them to consider this option before the end of term. In the meantime, many more will have been advised to consider the lesser option of ‘suspending’ their studies for up to twelve months. It is likely that this will be happening more often as term progresses. Struggling students will have been looking for help and increasing numbers will find their families losing employment and not able to offer their support. 

TEFS has asked the SLC to release data they have on the number of students suspending their studies. In addition, the Office for Students (OfS) told TEFS in October that it was gathering data from the SLC to “develop a real time understanding”. But when asked when this information would become available, they replied with “we don’t have a publication date”. It seems the data is there in “real time” but is not to be divulged at this point. Universities are reporting the situation and the SLC, DfE and OfS should be aware of what is happening. 

The context. 

TEFS discussed earlier the likelihood of students deciding to defer entry to university this year due the difficulties of teaching and attending university in the midst of the COVID-19 crisis. By asking ‘How precarious are universities in the UK?’ (TEFS 22nd May 2020) the answer hinged to a great extent on the potential loss of income from both UK and international students. Those with the most international students would find things difficult. However, by June it was clear that more UIK students were intending to push on with university as ‘Students accept offers they cannot refuse’ (TEFS 26th June 2020). 

It seemed the problem of students dropping out was being pushed down the line and TEFS warned, 

“The worst-case possible would mean students arriving in hope to find they are out of pocket and begging for ‘hardship funds’. 

Thankfully, the low dropout rate reported this week implies that universities have succeeded in finding help for their students. Certainly, they will have worked hard to do their best despite the government cutting the funds allocated for hardship support this year (see TEFS 11th September 2020 ‘Government response to digital poverty, job losses, and student hardship: A £21 million cut to its support’).

Also, bear in mind the potential loss of income for universities through paying back their advance payments from the SLC. The government allowed the SLC to make large advance payments based on projected numbers from 2019 plus a 5% contingency for 2020. This was reported by the SLC in October to be ‘£5 billion in student finance paid so far this term’

The dilemmas. 

However, by working hard to support their students, university staff will be caught in the horns of a dilemma. On the one hand they must do their best to keep the students engaged and hold onto the income. But more importantly, on the other hand is the welfare of the student. Withdrawing or dropping out may be a very bad decision for both parties. The compromise that has evolved over the years involves options such as ‘suspension of studies’ or ‘temporary withdrawal’. In my time, I have discussed this with many students with outside pressures, such as low family support and part-time jobs, and who see this as a way forward. In ‘The perfect storm for Universities’ (26th August 2020) and ‘The state of UK universities in lockdown’ (6th November 2020), TEFS examined the dilemma facing many students. 

What options do students have? 

The answer is that there are many options short of ‘dropping out’ or ‘withdrawal’ available. Every institution has a set of well-developed rules and procedures to accommodate students wishing to suspend their studies after term has started. Some students may even have planned to enter the university with a view to seeking help before suspending their studies in the first term. The down side is that they will lose 25% of their fees. Leaving in the second term will be worse and incur a penalty of 50% fees. 

Manchester University is as good an example as any. They offer a route to ‘suspending studies for a period’ and this is a good option for students finding they cannot proceed because of unexpected financial changes or other reasons. This is termed ‘Interruptions & Withdrawals’ in Manchester. The full policy is outlined here. It states “If you come across some difficulties during your studies which mean that completing the semester, year or remainder of your degree is not possible, you might want to consider a temporary interruption or withdrawal from your course.” 

The reality for students heading home early. 

A timely and informative article by Rachel Hall in the Guardian today, 'This term's been rough emotionally': the students heading home for Christmas’ goes to the reality of the dilemma for universities and students. She reports on the views of students who are experiencing university this term. They are reflecting on their position as they head home early for Christmas and more online studies. It appears that many are not seeking COVID tests since it could delay their return home. NUS vice-president for higher education, Hillary Gyebi-Ababio complains “If students have to self-isolate there is currently no guaranteed government or university support for them. Students remain unjustly excluded from the £500 low-income self-isolation payment and, as SAGE have identified, financial insecurity means people can struggle to comply fully”. Meanwhile, the reality of building up an overdraft is hitting home for many. One needs to return home to part-time work to pay off an overdraft and says, “I was originally expecting to get a term time job in Manchester, but then Covid happened and lockdown has ruined that.” 

Many more will be reflecting on their dilemma and planning how to proceed for the next year. There is still plenty of time in the coming weeks for students to change their minds and tutors and support staff at our universities will have their work cut out meeting their demands. I wish them all well in their task.

Mike Larkin, retired from Queen's University Belfast after 37 years teaching Microbiology, Biochemistry and Genetics. He has served on the Senate and Finance and planning committee of a Russell Group University.


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