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Ways to prevent dropouts

Figures released this month by the Higher Education Statistics Agency (HESA) show a rise in university drop-out rates for the third year running, with 6.2% of UK students not continuing their degree after the first year.

The rate fell slightly in Scotland in between 2013/14 and 14/15, from 6.7% to 6.5%, though Scotland still has the highest rate of the UK regions.

In 2015, it was estimated that each drop-out cost a university £33,000. That's not to mention the psychological harm it can do to someone who feels they have no option but to give up on their dream, and be left feeling like a failure. So what causes students to drop out, and what might be done to alleviate the problem?

Some students' reasons will be beyond the scope of anyone to foresee and forestall: illness, family crises, unmissable opportunities, lottery wins and any number of other sudden events that can happen to anyone.

But, despite every student's circumstances being different from the next's, there are some general causes to look at.

Dr Harriet Jones, as well as being Senior Lecturer in the University of East Anglia's School of Biological Sciences, is Director of UEA’s PreUniversity Skills Programme which includes a ‘Preparing for University’ MOOC and a CPD training programme for sixth form teachers.

She says one of the main problems is that students can be left feeling "overwhelmed" by the workload.

"Students don't know how to work enough hours," she said. "They might work twice as hard as they did at school, but that's not even close to what's needed."

And what and how they learn is more demanding too. "It's got to do with learning more focus. It's how to use the information they gather. We want to teach them to ask questions. But to do that they have to read and think. It's a lot easier just to be told stuff."

Another problem can be a feeling of "not belonging" (as discussed in this exploration of the issue in Australia in 2016, and this one from South Africa in 2015). Part-time students are particularly prone to dropping out, perhaps because they are never quite as immersed in university life as full-timers.

Dr Jones said good inductions for students are key. "We have to instil in students a feeling that they belong, that they are part of their school, the university, the union. As soon as they get here - and before they get here - we need to help them feel part of the community."

What other things can be done?

Gap years

They help enormously, whether spent travelling or working, Dr Jones said.

"You have got to let them have gap years," she urged parents and schools. "The best students who come to us are older students. It's the maturity they develop, [and experience of] working those hours. You get a bit of focus about what you are doing, why you're getting into it. You think better."

Early intervention

Universities are increasingly joined-up when it comes to spotting the warning signs that a student may be falling behind or not coping. They are there in the data, as this Guardian piece explains, also noting that London South Bank University found that "the timeliness of the university’s intervention made far more difference to students than what was actually done."

So teaching staff and support services like IT departments (who can see when a student last logged on and submitted work, for instance) can, and do, work together to identify whether a student needs help.

This begins, Dr Jones said, with something as simple as asking "Are you okay?" There is then a long process of monitoring and support before anything as drastic as disciplinary action is taken against a student who simply isn't doing the work.
Technological solutions are on the rise in this area, too, as in the case of this app developed to help students stay on track. There is much discussion happening about making access to support as easy as possible through numerous channels, and on-demand.

Good advice

It is important to ensure sixth-formers are under no illusion about what they face at uni. When around 50% of school-leavers are now going to university, Dr Jones said, many pupils see it as nothing more than a continuation of their studies so far.

Day visits to universities are all well and good, but to fully prepare for the demands of degree-level study, something like the UEA's Preparing for University online course is extremely valuable. These courses go into much more depth in explaining the differences between school and uni, and they expectations placed upon students.


The UEA and the Universities of Birmingham and Leicester are holding a workshop on 23 June, in Birmingham, bringing together teachers, lecturers, undergraduates and sixth-formers to discuss what can be done to make the transition from school to university even smoother.

The organisers are looking for schools to send one teacher and two pupils to join the event. If you would like to take part, you can email Dr Jones at for more information and to secure a place.

Posted by Nicholas Manthorpe on Tue, 21 Mar 2017

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Nick was a reporter for the Eastern Daily Press and its sister weekly titles in Norfolk and Waveney, then served as Media Officer for North Norfolk District Council for 13 years. He now works as a writer and PR and media relations consultant. He is a member of the Chartered Institute of Public Relations, an associate member of the Chartered Management Institute and a member of East Anglian Writers.

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