Despite over £800 million distributed to universities by the government over five years, the proportion of students dropping out of higher education is stationary at 22%, according to a Public Accounts Committee (PAC) report published last week.
The PAC, which examines how effectively money granted by the government is spent, found that since its last report on higher education in 2002, which had revealed increasing participation and smaller drop-out rates, statistics have not improved.
While the UK still has the 5th highest retention rate in the world, efforts to improve the statistic have “had little overall effect”. One of the reasons given by the report was that “increasing and widening participation in higher education attracts more students from under-represented groups who are more likely to withdraw from courses early.”
Mathematical Science, Engineering and Computer Science subjects present the highest drop-out rates. The report suggested Universities should “use market research techniques” to cater to student’s needs and provide more pastoral support.
The PAC recommended that “universities should give personal tutoring a sufficiently high priority, with training and support to help tutors to be fully effective in their role. Reward systems for academic staff should give sufficient recognition to performance in respect of personal tuition.”
However, the report pointed out that the UK has the highest participation rate in the world, second only to Korea. Professor David Eastwood, chief executive of the Higher Education Funding Council for England, commented that “higher education has continued to grow and attract students who, a generation ago, would not have given higher education a second thought, and it has done so while slightly improving success rates for students”.
According to Professor Eastwood, the standstill of overall dropout rates is an achievement “to be applauded” in face of the growing numbers of students throughout the country.
Eastwood was criticized by Ormond Simpson, Senior Lecturer in Institutional Research at the Open University, as being “complacent”. Simpson claims “the costs of dropping out, both financially and socially, are huge. The time is long overdue that it was taken far more seriously”. Simpson added that there are still wide variations between institutions to be explained, and that international comparisons are “notoriously unreliable”.