How to stop the drop-outs

Leaving university early can be disastrous for students and is expensive for the taxpayer. Lucy Hodges looks at some innovative ways to help undergraduates stay the course
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The Independent Online

When Liam Smith arrived at the University of Teesside to read sport and exercise science he wasn't used to studying. He'd been mostly playing football at Middlesbrough College's sporting academy and was not accustomed to attending lectures or writing assignments. "It was a culture shock being thrown suddenly into full-time academic study," he says.

When Liam Smith arrived at the University of Teesside to read sport and exercise science he wasn't used to studying. He'd been mostly playing football at Middlesbrough College's sporting academy and was not accustomed to attending lectures or writing assignments. "It was a culture shock being thrown suddenly into full-time academic study," he says.

He struggled to complete the assignments and to provide the references for essays that are de rigueur in today's higher education world. Just as important, he had never really used computers before arriving at university. So before exam time at the end of the first year, he decided to throw in the towel. "I thought it was too much," Liam says. "I left, thinking I would get a job."

But in September, when the time came to re-enrol, something stopped him from entering the workplace. Liam rang Teesside to see what his options were and they encouraged him to return, and to sign up for an HND rather than a degree. He found this suited him better than the degree course because the pace was slower and the approach was more hands-on. "You also get more help and guidance," he says. Today, he is in the second year of an HND and hoping next year to switch to the degree course and gain his longed-for degree. "I would say to anyone who is thinking of dropping out, 'Don't do it'," says Liam. "It's easy to drop out, but if you work at it you can learn to organise your time and plan your work and get a degree."

Teesside prides itself on what it does for students in danger of falling by the wayside. Its drop-out rate is 21 per cent across the three years of an undergraduate degree, which might seem a lot, but is in fact bang on its benchmark (the figure that it is expected to have, given its student mix). In the United Kingdom as a whole, the percentage of students dropping out of higher education amounts to 17 per cent on average - about half that of other OECD countries. Nevertheless, dropping out can be a personal tragedy for students, because it can affect their life chances and leave them in debt. For the British taxpayers, it is bad news because it wastes public money.

Teesside would undoubtedly have a higher drop-out rate if it didn't have such an impressive programme of support for students. This is overseen by a retention team funded initially by the European Social Fund and headed by Diane Nutt, who herself dropped out as a student when she was at the former Trent Polytechnic (now Nottingham Trent University). "I passed my exams but I was not really interested in my studies, plus I was in a lot of financial difficulty and I had trouble at home," she explains. So she left higher education, and got a job as a bookseller for 10 years.

Finding herself working in a university bookshop at the age of 29, Nutt was inspired to go back into higher education. So she enrolled for a degree in independent studies at Lancaster University, which meant she designed her own degree. "I really enjoyed it," she says. The result was that she excelled, ending up with a First class degree; she followed this success with a PhD in sociology.

The research shows that the majority of students who drop out return to higher education within 10 years, according to Nutt. "If we have made the student experience enjoyable, the chances of them returning either to their previous or a different institution are greater," she says.

The retention team concentrates its main focus on first-year students because they are particularly vulnerable to dropping out. Teesside has a Drop-in Student Skills centre where students can get help from a tutor in areas such as writing and studying without having to make an appointment. More than 1,250 students visit it a year and a review in 2004 confirmed its usefulness, particularly in helping first-year students.

Teesside's six academic schools have developed differing strategies to help students who might be at risk of dropping out. The school of social sciences, for example, has a drop-in desk staffed by third-year students to help their fellow undergraduates with any problem, whether it's academic or personal. Then there's the business school, which runs workshops. There's one, for example, that helps first-year students of business studies to integrate into their new environment.

In the arts and media school, meanwhile, progress files are used to help students organise their work, register their achievements and build confidence. In the school of health and social care, learning groups have been established to give students a sense of belonging. All first years are organised into a learning group of approximately 25 - a number that's small enough to encourage solidarity but large enough to allow students to mix.

Mentoring has been adopted in the school of science and technology, whereby second-year students take first years under their wing. And, lastly, the school of computing uses an online system called Blackboard to enable students to find out about their course and their school. The first-year support site includes discussion forums for students and access to staff.

Teesside is especially proud of what it does for mature students, and believes that its programme Twenty-One-Plus, a pre-induction activity to break the ice for older students, helps to give them a happy introduction to the university.

Not all universities are as successful as Teesside in keeping students, however. A report published last month by the Higher Education Policy Institute discovered that the former University of North London had a higher drop-out rate than the former London Guildhall University with which it merged to form London Metropolitan University. The report attributes this high rate - 22 per cent dropping out before the end of the first year compared with 15 per cent at London Guildhall - to the fact that it admitted a large number of students without A-levels who would have been rejected by other universities. But, London Metropolitan says that it has taken action over its drop-out rate, which stands at 28 per cent over the three years of a degree. It has improved its procedures for student inductions and introduced new systems for supporting students. Teesside has shown how important such systems are.

l.hodges@independent.co.uk

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