Posted tagged ‘student drop-outs’

Addressing student attrition

January 25, 2016

If you were a student at Cork Institute of Technology in Ireland, and if you were studying Theatre and Drama Studies, you’d be in clover and pretty much guaranteed to complete your course: the attrition rate in the course is zero. On the other hand if in the same Institute you were studying IT Management, or Electronic Engineering, then more likely than not you’ll drop out before you complete: over 60 per cent don’t make it in either course. The same is true for students in Energy in the University of Limerick; but not Midwifery in the same university, where there are no drop-outs. Even in Trinity College Dublin, 50 per cent of Computer Science students don’t make it.

All of these figures, and many more, are revealed by the Irish Times in a recent article. But this phenomenon is not unique to Ireland. In Britain there are significant trends also, with Computer Science generally recording the highest attrition rates. Overall some 25,000 students drop out of higher education altogether every year in the UK, without completing their course. Interestingly, and as an aside, the drop-out rate amongst international students is lower than that of domestic students. In the United States the overall attrition rate is high – estimates put it at over 30 per cent; but very low in well resourced research universities.

What is the cause of all this? In some cases it is likely that students have made an immature choice of study. Young people, for example, who have been used to working with computers since a very early age imagine they will be wonderful computer programmers, until they discover that they do not have the technical (in particular mathematical) skills needed. In some cases students were persuaded by parents or teachers or other advisers to pursue a course of study that they were never really suited for. In some cases universities and colleges don’t provide the kind of support needed to keep people in their studies.

But student attrition is not something minor – it is a huge failure of the system.  It is an extraordinary waste: a waste of talent and personal application; a waste of money, including taxpayer money in many countries; a waste of opportunity for people and society. There is no acceptable drop-out rate. Where students are not completing, those of us in the system need to work very hard to find out why, and need to remedy it. And the key thing to bear in mind is that student achievement requires the best facilities and the best support – it requires good funding. Without that the problem will not be resolved.


Do keep an eye on students; but there are limits

August 12, 2013

There is little doubt that one of the key tasks for universities these days is to minimise attrition and ensure as few students as possible drop out. Every time a university admits a student, this represents a major investment – either by the students themselves, or by the taxpayer, or by other sponsors. That investment turns into a waste of money when a student does not complete the course.

All universities know that a key support for successful completion is close interaction with the student. The more a student is engaged, observed, assessed, spoken with, listened to, the more likely it is that the student will graduate. Class attendance and interaction with lecturers and tutors have particular benefits, raising the university’s awareness of what issues or problems a student may have.

One university appears to be contemplating another method of getting this kind of awareness: it is reported that Loughborough University is considering monitoring its students’ private emails. Apparently this involves looking for ‘negative comments’ as these could be an indicator of dissatisfaction or difficulty. Other universities are also looking at ways of perfecting their knowledge of at risk students, using and analysing data they have about them.

I suspect, however, that this kind of approach is both ethically questionable and doubtful as regards effectiveness. University studies are about intellectual engagement; on the other hand, the methods being used by Loughborough and others suggest it is about intelligence gathering by the university. Knowing your students is important, but this knowledge is secured through interaction rather than surveillance.

Maybe all this is a product of the checks and controls that universities themselves now face, with education viewed as performance. Some of that is inevitable and probably even right, but it should not crowd out properly understood pedagogy. And universities should avoid becoming their students’ Big Brother.

Understanding why students drop out

October 29, 2010

Just over two weeks ago I addressed the problem of student non-completion in this blog. Yesterday Ireland’s Higher Education Authority published a Study of Progression in Irish Higher Education, which set out some of the more detailed data on student drop-outs broken down by institution and by subject. The study is extremely useful, but on the whole it tells us a lot of things we already know, or certainly ought to know: that students with poorer Leaving Certificate (final secondary school examination) results are more likely to drop out of university; that woman are better at completing than men; that difficult programmes of study have a higher rate of attrition; and that institutes of technology have higher drop-out rates than universities. Perhaps less obviously, it also tells us that there is no significant difference in attrition between those from a better-off background and the less well off (though the latter are much less likely to get to university in the first place).

Yesterday afternoon I was invited by Radio Station TodayFM to be a guest, together with the HEA’s Muiris O’Connor, on the late afternoon programme The Last Word with Matt Cooper. In considering the report of this study, and also in assessing the comments made by Muiris O’Connor in explaining it, I was struck by the fact that one absolutely key message was missing: the impact of the CAO points system.

As Irish readers of this blog know, the points system is essentially a market in programmes: if you want to study a popular subject you will need more CAO points than if you are willing to go for one of the less popular ones. The level of difficulty of the programme is neither here nor there; and so because difficult programmes are by their nature less popular, you find bizarrely that you can get on to a difficult course with much worse Leaving Certificate results than you would need for an easier one. That this results in significant attrition rates for difficult programmes is hardly an earth-shattering surprise. What is a surprise, however, is that we know this and do nothing about it. And the reason why we do nothing about it is broadly the same reason why we won’t tackle fees – we are afraid of the wrath of the middle classes, who generally want to pour money into their children’s secondary education and then want them to be professionals rather than scientists, entrepreneurs or artists.

As I have mentioned before, the CAO points system is slowly but surely distorting and corrupting the whole Irish education system. We need to address this urgently. And as they own it, the people who need to tackle the points system head-on are the universities. It is time to act.

The problem of university drop-outs

October 12, 2010

In both Britain and Ireland we have prided ourselves on relatively low student drop-out rates; in other words, the percentage of first year entrants into higher education who do not complete their programme of study successfully is low by international standards. Indeed in Britain the drop-out rate has dropped substantially over the past ten years or so and now stands at just over 7 per cent (though admittedly at 9 per cent in Scotland). The figure in Ireland is thought to be higher, but in other countries non-completion figures of well over 25 per cent are not uncommon. In Europe the more extreme levels of drop-out may be reduced by the Bologna framework of higher education.

But whatever the figure may be, if it is substantially higher than zero it is not acceptable. This is so because of the wasted opportunities and human potential represented by a drop-out, and because of the very substantial cost involved. In the United States it has been estimated that the cost to the taxpayer of student non-completion runs into billions of dollars. A student who drops out vacates a place that can, for the remainder of the time they should have been there, not be re-filled, and the money spent on them before they leave is wasted.

The problem is that student attrition may now be exacerbated by demographic and other developments, some of which have created a trend of non-attendance by students at lectures and classes (which in turn is known to contribute to non-completion). While the problem is well recognised across the higher education system, there is no sure method of addressing it. Different institutions, and indeed different departments within institutions, have tried various ways of addressing attrition, but there is no overall coordinated strategy for this. The time for such a strategy may now have come.

One key ingredient in handling non-completion is maintaining as close a contact as possible with individual students. Students who feel insecure or are struggling will often fall away if nobody is seen to be taking any direct interest in them, or indeed if their performance is not closely monitored. Equally we must be aware that as resources become scarcer and scarcer the capacity of institutions to maintain that kind of contact with students is diminished, and attrition is likely to grow. Another reason for looking again at the funding and resourcing of higher education.