Abertay University sees ‘biggest rise in drop-outs in UK’

Study reveals two-thirds of UK institutions have seen a rise in students dropping out since 2011/12.

Dundee’s Abertay University has seen the biggest rise in student drop-outs over the last five years of any university or college in the UK, according to official figures.

They reveal that two-thirds of UK universities and colleges have seen an increase in the proportion of students dropping out since 2011/12.

Press Association analysis shows that in some cases, non-continuation rates have risen by more than 5% – with Abertay the highest, increasing by 8.6% to 12.1% in the last five years, up from just 3.5% in 2011/12.

A spokesman for the university said the institution “recognises that there is a need to improve student retention” and is introducing measures to do so.

These include recruiting additional student advisers and using data analysis to pinpoint early warning signs that a student may be experiencing difficulties and need support.

He added that Abertay has one of the highest proportions of disadvantaged students in Scotland, and that more than a third of students arrive at the university from college into the second or third year of a degree.

“This means the life experiences of our students are often very different from those elsewhere,” he said.

The figures come at a time when universities are under greater scrutiny and pressure to be more transparent about areas such as drop-out rates and graduate outcomes.

One expert said that students can end up feeling demoralised if university does not work out for them, but that leaving early does not mean that they should not have gone at all.

‘Leaving a course early does not always mean someone should not have had a go – sometimes, unexpected life events get in the way of the best-laid plans.’

Nick Hillman, Hepi

PA examined data on the five-year period from 2011/12 – the year before tuition fees in England were trebled to £9,000 – to 2016/17 (the last year for which data is available).

It reveals that 100 UK institutions (67%) saw an increase in the proportion of students dropping out.

A total of seven institutions had an increase of more than 5% in the five-year period, while 19 had an increase of more than 3%.

In Scotland, only Abertay saw an increase of more than 3%, with most Scottish institutions showing either small increases or small decreases.

A Scottish university also oversaw the largest reduction in drop-out rates, with the figure falling by 8.6% at the University of the West of Scotland.

Across the UK, just under a third (31%) of institutions saw non-continuation rates fall during the period, while at four universities and colleges the proportion remained static.

The analysis uses annual data published by the Higher Education Statistics Agency for 150 universities and colleges, and covers UK, full-time undergraduate students who were no longer in higher education the year after they started their course.

A spokesman for vice-chancellors’ group Universities UK said: “Universities are committed to widening access to higher education and ensuring students from all backgrounds can succeed and progress.

“This includes supporting students to achieve the best outcomes in not only getting into university, but flourishing while they are there.

“Many have specific plans in place to deliver this – for example in England access and participation plans are usually a required commitment for institutions.

“However, it is clear that non-continuation is still an issue and institutions must continue to work to support students to progress and succeed at university.”

Nick Hillman, director of the Higher Education Policy Institute (Hepi), said: “It is always a shame when someone makes the leap to higher education and it does not work out for them. They can end up demoralised and can also find it hard to explain any gap in their CVs to potential future employers.

“But leaving a course early does not always mean someone should not have had a go – sometimes, unexpected life events get in the way of the best-laid plans.

“Any upward trend in non-continuation rates does need to be considered very carefully. We have lower drop-out rates than many other countries and we shouldn’t be looking to converge on their higher numbers.”

He added: “Students are more demanding than they used to be and there are more first-in-family students, who know less about what to expect.”

UK universities minister Chris Skidmore said: “I want to see each university and indeed courses held individually accountable for how many students are successfully obtaining a degree so that we can be transparent and open about where there are real problems.

“Many universities are doing excellent work to support students but it’s essential that dropout rates are reduced.

“We cannot afford to see this level of wasted talent.”

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