Dropping out: a study of early leavers from higher education




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Brief No: 386




December 2002

ISBN 1841858692






DROPPING OUT: A STUDY OF EARLY LEAVERS FROM HIGHER EDUCATION





Rhys Davies & Peter Elias


Institute for Employment Research (IER)









Introduction


Drop out rates have remained relatively stable over the last decade despite the expansion in participation during this period. Most recent estimates indicate that approximately 17 per cent of UK domiciled students starting a full-time first degree course at an higher education institute during 1998/99 will obtain no qualification. Despite the rate of non-completion remaining relatively stable over the last decade and seemingly low compared to other OECD countries, there is a legitimate concern about the effects of withdrawal from Higher Education upon the individuals concerned and how this rate could be reduced.
But who are these leavers? Why do they leave and what happens to them subsequently? To address these questions the then Department for Education and Employment (DfEE) commissioned the Warwick Institute for Employment Research to conduct an enquiry on its behalf, specifically to collect relevant information from a sample of higher education non-completers and to pursue in-depth enquiry with such individuals.
A sample of persons regarded as ‘withdrawers’ was obtained from a database of student records maintained by the Higher Education Funding Council for England (HEFCE). Potential ‘withdrawers’ were identified for the years 1996/7 and 1998/9 for 30 selected institutions of higher education. Approximately 16,400 ‘withdrawers’ were identified. Questionnaires were mailed to approximately 15,200 of these people. At 10 per cent, the response to the postal enquiry was low. This is perhaps unsurprising given that people are less willing to provide information about activities that they did not complete. This limits the extent to which the findings can be generalised. However, a follow-up of non-respondents did suggest that the response bias detected (in terms of gender, prior qualifications and time since withdrawal) may not seriously affect the key findings from the postal survey. A follow up telephone survey was conducted for 100 respondents to the postal questionnaire. This Bulletin provides a summary of our findings.
Labour Market Outcomes
Approximately half of the institutions selected for the present enquiry also participated in an earlier study of 1995 first-degree graduates (Moving On: graduate careers three years after graduation. Manchester: CSU/DfEE, 1999). Comparisons could therefore made between the labour market outcomes of withdrawers in the years following their time spent attending HE against a comparable group of graduates. Significant differences in these outcomes are observed in terms of both the experience of unemployment and the types of employment gained by these two groups.
While the experience of unemployment remains low amongst respondents to the non-completion survey, they report unemployment at approximately twice the level of that prevailing amongst a comparable group of graduates. Whilst approximately 6 per cent of withdrawers recorded that they were unemployed at some stage during the year immediately following withdrawal, unemployment amongst graduates falls rapidly to approximately 3 per cent one year after graduation.
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Observing the sample of graduates at three and a half years after leaving HE, only 1 in 10 remain in occupations classified as ‘non-graduate’; i.e. occupations that do not require high level qualifications, such as catering, cleaning, driving, bar work and low level security. This is compared to 1 in 4 respondents to the non-completion survey who remain in ‘non-graduate’ type occupations at three and a half years after leaving HE.


Both the current survey of early withdrawers from HE and the Moving On survey of graduates asked respondents whether the job they held at the time of the survey held a range of positive attributes. Comparing responses from the two surveys it is found that although many fewer of the withdrawers are working in graduate or graduate track occupations, they express virtually the same distribution of positive attributes associated with their jobs as do the graduates. There is no indication therefore that early withdrawers are less satisfied with their employment compared to recent graduates. It was also not possible to conclude that there is evidence of a significant financial penalty associated with non-completion in the short term.
Applying to Higher Education
The research aimed to describe the process of withdrawal from HE. We are therefore not able to infer with complete confidence the causes of withdrawal from HE. However, those respondents who applied to HE through clearing report a number of factors in their choice of course that are not conducive to successful completion of HE. These respondents generally consult fewer sources of information prior to application, whilst their choice of course and institution are less likely to be influenced by attributes that can be regarded as positive. However, insights from the telephone survey gave the clearest indication as to how respondents felt that the process of applying to HE contributed to their decision to withdraw.


  • Respondents were critical of a system of applying to HE, where course choices were based upon predicted grades rather than actual performance. Where results exceed original expectations, respondents had to accept a place on courses that were, in retrospect, second choice.

  • Many respondents felt that they had been pushed by their schools to enter university. They instead felt that they would have benefited from a year out of education to think about their choices more carefully and to enter HE with greater maturity.

  • Schools were also criticised as failing to present more vocational methods of learning as viable alternatives to university. These respondents felt that more vocationally orientated methods of learning would have better suited their abilities and interests.

  • Whilst respondents were aware as to the availability of careers advice, they feel that these sessions should have been made compulsory and more frequent.



Withdrawing from Higher Education
The influences on the decision to withdraw most commonly cited by respondents to the postal questionnaire were;


  • a mistaken choice of course (24 per cent);

  • financial problems directly related to participation in higher education (18 per cent);

  • and personal problems (14 per cent).

Table 1 shows how the emphasis placed upon these influences varied between different groups of survey respondent. Most notably, financial problems directly related to participation in HE are cited as the most important influence upon withdrawal by male respondents. Financial problems and personal problems were more commonly cited by those who were over the age of 21 at the time of withdrawal. However, mistaken choice of course predominates in 6 of the 8 sub-groups presented in table 1.


The greater emphasis placed upon mistaken choice of course by those entering HE through clearing points towards the potential problems faced by such entrants in choosing an appropriate course. These possible disadvantages were further alluded to in other areas of the survey. Sixty per cent of those who applied through clearing indicated that the course was not as interesting as they had expected. This is compared to 48 per cent who applied through UCAS or direct to the institution. In choosing the course, 44 per cent of those who applied through clearing stated that they would have liked more careers advice before applying to higher education, compared to 32 per cent of those who applied directly. Finally, 22 per cent of early leavers who applied through clearing indicated that they wished they had visited the university before deciding to study there. This is compared to just 9 per cent who applied directly. This is consistent with findings from the NAO report into student achievement1. This report recommended that to minimise the risks of early withdrawal institutions should consider how best to make available additional guidance and information for students who come through the clearing process.
There was some evidence to indicate a tendency amongst respondents to under report the importance of academic _________________

1 “Improving student achievement in English higher education” report by the Comptroller and Auditor General NAO 2002

Table 1: Main Influences upon the Decision to Withdraw from Higher Education




Gender

Males

%

Females

%

1st

Financial problems

24.0

Mistaken choice of course

25.5

2nd

Mistaken choice of course

21.1

Personal Problems

15.4

3rd

Personal Problems

12.5

Financial Problems

13.1

Age at Withdrawal

21 or under




Over 21




1st

Mistaken choice of course

29.2

Financial problems

23.0

2nd

Financial problems

16.0

Personal Problems

16.5

3rd

Personal Problems

13.0

Other

14.8

Method of Application

UCAS etc or Direct




Clearing




1st

Mistaken choice of course

22.8

Mistaken choice of course

29.1

2nd

Financial problems

17.4

Financial problems

21.8

3rd

Personal Problems

14.4

Other

11.8

Year of Withdrawal

First Year




After First Year




1st

Mistaken choice of course

26.0

Mistaken choice of course

18.7

2nd

Financial problems

17.9

Financial problems

18.0

3rd

Personal Problems

12.4

Personal Problems

17.7




difficulties upon the decision to withdraw. Alternatively, respondents may regard academic difficulties as having arisen ultimately due to a mistaken choice of course. HESA data shows that most students appear to withdraw because of “personal” reasons or academic failure. In most cases no specific reason is recorded. In addition to these the National Audit Office found that other factors affecting the decision to leave were: a lack of preparedness of higher education; changing personal circumstances or interests; financial matters; the impact of undertaking paid work; and dissatisfaction with the course or institution.
A majority of respondents were aware of the availability of personal tutors and counselling services whilst attending HE. Approximately half of survey respondents indicated that they had drawn upon the services of personal tutors, although views regarding their usefulness were mixed. Respondents with specific needs or personal problems were particularly critical of the ability of personal tutors to provide support. (The NAO 2002 report on student achievement recommended that personal tutors should be trained in advising students and should know where within the institution to refer students with specific problems.) The most common sources of advice sought before deciding to withdraw from HE were parents/relatives and friends. One in five respondents sought no advice before deciding to withdraw from HE.
Financial Support and Withdrawing from HE
The concurrent survey of the 1996/7 and 1998/9 cohorts was undertaken to provide early evidence as to the possible importance of changes to the student support arrangements upon early withdrawal from HE. These changes have entailed both the gradual replacement of the student grant by a loans system, and, from 1998, the introduction of means-tested tuition fees.
The introduction of tuition fees was not found to have affected the propensity of survey respondents to report that financial problems were the main influence upon their decision to withdraw. However, students who depended upon government funding were more likely to report financial problems as the main influence upon the decision to withdraw compared to those who depended primarily upon parental contributions. Furthermore, those for whom student loans were the main source of income were more likely to report that they had withdrawn due to financial problems compared to those whose main source of income was derived from grants. Finally, respondents who felt well informed about the costs of HE were less likely to report that they (a) had withdrawn due to financial problems, (b) had experienced difficulties in budgeting whilst studying and (c) that better financial support would have most helped them to remain in HE.
No significant increase was found in the propensity of respondents to undertake paid employment during term time between 1996/97 and 1998/99. However, there is some evidence to indicate that students are working longer hours, and are increasingly missing lectures in order to undertake this work.
Finally, when asked what factors would have most helped them to remain in HE, the most common response given was better financial support.
Policy Implications and Directions for Future Research
This enquiry into the causes and consequences of early withdrawal from HE has helped to delineate both the nature of the process and the scale of the associated effects. Some of these seem obvious, particularly the labour market disadvantage faced by those who start but do not complete a course of higher education compared to graduates. But equally important are the feelings of personal failure and the stigma attached to the early withdrawal from HE. Coupled with the effects of non-completion upon the effectiveness and the efficiency of the higher education system, the desirability of reducing rates of early withdrawal from HE becomes apparent. The clearest policy recommendations surround the process of applying to HE.
Better advice needs to be made available to year 12 and 13 pupils who are considering entry into Higher Education. This advice should firstly consider whether pupils wish to follow what has become the ‘natural progression’ from school to HE. Schools need to encourage pupils to think about whether an immediate transition to HE is most appropriate for them.
However, pupils cannot be expected to make an informed decision if they are not provided with information regarding viable alternatives to university; including more vocationally orientated learning opportunities and the option of a gap year. To this end, the importance of career advice should also be underlined and attendance more actively encouraged.
Those respondents who felt well informed about the costs of higher education were less likely to report that they withdrew due to financial problems related to participation in HE. Preparation for entry into HE should therefore extend beyond the choice of course and institutions, and also provide information on the costs of higher education and advice on managing finances.
A number of recent policy initiatives are addressing some of these issues. The foundation degree aims to “offer a new vocationally-focussed route into higher education”, developing a HE qualification for intermediate level skills. A total 40 foundation degree courses are currently being offered throughout England by 21 consortia, involving 35 higher education institutions, 70 further education colleges, employers and other organisations. Early statistics on HE students published at the beginning of 2002 show that 4,294 students had enrolled on foundation degrees at first point of entry in 2001. This is compared to a target of 4,000.
In terms of providing extra information for young people, the development of the Connexions service aims to provide integrated information and guidance to young people regarding their progress through education, Further Education and Higher Education. The Connexions service will also contribute towards the Government’s proposals for widening the participation of young people in Higher Education. Under these proposals, the Connexions service will provide clear information for young people and their parents about the costs and benefits of HE, including eligibility regarding the payment of tuition fees.

The government is addressing under-representation of certain groups in HE and has introduced the Excellence Challenge to extend young people's access to HE. It is targeted at young people aged between 13 and 19 in Excellence in Cities areas and Education Action Zones. The Excellence Challenge is designed to help overcome barriers of expectation, resource and experience.



Finally, the present research has indicated that those who apply to HE through clearing report characteristics that may not be regarded as conducive to the successful completion of HE. These characteristics are observed in terms of both their applications to HE, their experiences of HE and their reasons for withdrawal from HE. However, due to the partial nature of the present enquiry, we are unable to infer that the clearing process is a cause of early withdrawal.
Additional Information
Copies of the full report (RR386) – priced £4.95 – are available by writing to DfES Publications, PO Box 5050, Sherwood Park, Annesley, Nottingham NG15 ODJ.
Cheques should be made payable to “DfES Priced Publications”
Copies of this Research Brief (RB386) are available free of charge from the above address (tel: 0845 60 222 60). Research Briefs and Reports can also be accessed at http://www.dfes.gov.uk/research/
Further information about this research can be obtained from David Thompson, Room E633, DfES, Moorfoot, Sheffield S1 4PQ.

Email: David-AS.Thompson@dfes.gsi.gov.uk



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