Retention and data – is there a problem?

Last month the Higher Education Statics Agency (HESA) published the most recent set of performance indicators for higher education providers, including data on retention, or more precisely, non-continuation of students in the year following entry to higher education. Performance indicators are benchmarked to allow meaningful comparisons between providers by taking into account the different mix of students at each provider.

A summary of how the University is doing on retention follows:

  • Retention figures for full-time first degree entrants fell to 90% continuing, from 91% in the previous year. Non-continuation, at 8%, remains the same at 1% below benchmark. Non-continuation of mature entrants fell to 9%, and is now on benchmark (from 2% below benchmark in the prior year).
  • Retention of young full-time first degree entrants from low participation neighbourhoods has improved, with 7% no longer in HE, down from 12%, and compared to a benchmark figure of 10%. (Note: the numbers of students in this category is low and therefore these figures should be treated in this context: the population was 225 in 2013/14 and 220 in 2014/15). Retention of young full-time entrants from other neighbourhoods has dropped by 2.6%, with 8% no longer in HE, matching our benchmark.
  • Retention of mature full-time first degree entrants with a previous HE qualification has fallen to 10% no longer in HE, compared to a benchmark of 10%. Retention of mature full-time first degree entrants with no previous HE experience has improved by 3%, with 9% no longer in HE, compared to a benchmark of 11%.
  • In the full time ‘other undergraduate entrants’ groups (students on FD and Higher National courses) the percentage of students that are not in HE following the year of entry fell to 16% and remains 4% above benchmark. Non-continuation of mature students on these courses is 17%, which is 5% above benchmark.

Overall, our continuation rates have slipped in the last year. Our retention rates were as measured by students still in HE in the year following entry were better than expected (ie as compared to benchmarks). We are now performing at around our benchmark for most groups of students. Of particular concern is mature students on FD and HN programmes.

What can be done?

The University is developing a project on retention, and is participating in a HEA programme on student retention and success. More on this in later blogs …

Meanwhile the HEA recently published a literature review on Enhancing access, retention, attainment and progression in higher education. This report makes 4 recommendations to ‘front-line’ educators:

  • explore how best to integrate emerging analytics platforms with the role of personal tutoring. Learning analytics is emblematic of the new holistic approaches to student retention and is likely to have profound implications for personal tutoring.
  • through curriculum design; ensure that there are early opportunities for assessment and feedback, which establish a culture of academic achievement and ‘success’. This might enhance retention statistics. In parallel, dedicated academic ‘success’ programmes, which may sit outside the formal curriculum, could be of benefit to certain groups of students; examples from the US provide helpful points of reference (see McGrath and Burd 2012; Barraza 2012; Malik 2011; Smith 2010);
  • encourage more student engagement with digital learning environments and social media applications; broadly speaking, evidence indicates potential benefits in terms of raising attainment levels;
  • embed within courses professional experiences (e.g. work placements) and applied assignments, which enhance students’ skills and preparedness for progression into employment and/or further study.
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