Wide variance over Yorkshire university dropout rates amid warnings of a national rise

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Rising numbers of students are dropping out of the nation’s universities and colleges, analysis suggests, despite a call from the Education Secretary on settings to “up their game”.

Gavin Williamson has previously urged universities to do more to retain students, particularly those from disadvantaged backgrounds.

But as new scrutiny of non-completion rates shows that two thirds of settings have seen a rise in drop-outs in the last five years, there are further warnings over support.

“It is always a shame when someone makes the leap to higher education and it does not work out for them,” said Nick Hillman, director of the Higher Education Policy Institute.

“They can end up demoralised and can also find it hard to explain any gap in their CVs to potential future employers.

“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.”

The analysis covers the latest data available, over a five-year period from 2011/12 – the year before tuition fees in England were trebled to £9,000 – to 2016/17.

The figures, from the Higher Education Statistics Agency, reveal that 100 out of 150 settings saw a rise in the number of students dropping out.

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Yorkshire analysis

In some cases, non-completion rates have risen by more than five percentage points, while the picture in Yorkshire is more mixed, varying widely by institution.

When it came to drop out rates for 2016/17, some of the smallest numbers were seen at the region’s elite Russell Group set.

The figures for those who didn’t continue after their first year was at 4.1 per cent for both the University of Leeds and the University of York, and 2.7 per cent at the University of Sheffield.

In comparison, the University of Hull saw a non-completion rate of eight per cent, and Leeds Beckett 11.5 per cent – although this does show a slight improvement on the year prior.

Nationally, the average figure for non-completion across England was at 6.4 per cent.

“Students are more demanding than they used to be and there are more first-in-family students, who know less about what to expect,” adds Mr Hillman. “Moreover, the removal of student number controls has meant that some people who would previously not have been able to attend higher education can now go.

“In general, that is a good thing, but universities should only let people in whom they are fairly confident will thrive as a student with the right support – and they need to ensure that any promised support is in place.”

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Support networks

A spokesman for vice-chancellors’ group Universities UK said many settings have specific plans in place to deliver support, and for most in England this is a requirement.

“Universities are committed to widening access to higher education and ensuring students from all backgrounds can succeed and progress,” he said. “This includes supporting students to achieve the best outcomes in not only getting into university, but flourishing while they are there.

“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.”

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."