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2. Retention - the national picture

2.1 According to the Public Accounts Committee report (2007-08), around 28,000 full time and 87,000 part-time students who commenced first degree courses in 2004-05 were no longer in higher education a year later. Among full time students starting in 2004-05, 91.6% entered the second year of study and 78.1% were expected to complete their courses. However, there remains a performance gap on retention rates between universities.

Yorke and Longden (2004) suggest that some matters relating to student retention are primarily under institutional control, whereas others are for students to take in hand.

2.3 Johnes and McNabb (2004) have indicated that the main reasons for attrition from HE courses in the UK are academic failure (involuntary attrition) and voluntary dropout.   

While looking at the wider international picture, Yorke and Longden (2004) have identified 4 broad reasons why students leave which are:

(i) flawed decision making in initial choice of course
(ii) events impacting on students’ lives outside the institution
(iii) students’ experience of the course and the institution
(iv) failure to cope with the academic demands.

2.4 As early as 2003, Yorke observed that while there was an increasing level of understanding relating to retention and completion, the need for institutions is for reflective enquiry into the characteristics of the educational environment ie the pedagogy and support structures and how they might synergistically contribute to students’ success rather than  focussing on the symptom (how to improve retention).

2.5 The probability of leaving a university before gaining a qualification is influenced significantly by a number of factors most notably:

  • pre- university education
  • personal attributes
  • the degree subject
  • characteristics of the department and the university (Smith and Naylor 2001).

2.6 Students who leave university without gaining a qualification can suffer from loss of confidence and experience a sense of failure. Universities also suffer when students do not complete a course of study and this suffering can take the form of financial withdrawal or perhaps more importantly, loss of the university’s reputation.

2.7 Student voluntary withdrawal is for a variety of stated reasons including personal circumstances, dissatisfaction with their course or university and financial reasons. There appears to be rarely one single reason why a student may give up their course. Occasionally, one problem (eg marriage breakdown) may create a so-called ‘domino effect’ of financial, health and housing consequences which can adversely affect the student’s whole equilibrium leading to inability to concentrate on study and eventually to withdrawal from a course (Heagney 2008).

2.8 Self reported reasons for leaving a course are myriad as Dr John Pugh MP, (Lib Dem  Southport) revealed after reading the Comptroller and Auditor General’s Report Staying the course: the retention of students on higher education courses. He noted that every conceivable reason known to man short of alien abduction had been given (House of Commons Committee of Public Accounts 2008).

The HE funding council considers that all universities should establish reasons for leaving and should have systems to identify and investigate particularly atypical trends in withdrawal and act on their analysis. In addition, universities should have information on what keeps students on courses as well as what causes them to leave. It would appear that universities who are improving retention tend to collate and use management information on withdrawal rates.

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