UK universities predict record student dropout rate


Fears that young people have ‘lost the discipline of learning’ add to students’ money worries as part-time jobs dry up


Record numbers of young people in the UK are starting a university course this autumn, with many anxious to escape a collapsing employment market. But as students embark on a very different university experience, vice-chancellors are worried that many may not last the year.

Universities are reporting unprecedented pressure on their student hardship funds, after the abrupt loss of thousands of part-time student jobs in bars, restaurants and shops as a result of the pandemic. They fear students will be much less able to cope with the demands of their course if they are preoccupied with serious worries about paying for food or rent.

Meanwhile, experts are warning that this year’s freshers have “lost the discipline of learning”, having spent months at home with no A-level exams to revise for. They predict many will struggle to adapt to independent university study, especially as many classes will be online. They may be “digital natives”, but they are not used to online learning.

The head of one leading research university said that most prestigious universities had been factoring a rise in dropouts into their recruitment numbers.

The vice-chancellor of another university, in the elite Russell Group, said some students who had been given a place would not have met their offer requirements in an ordinary year, but had done so with teacher-assessed A-level grades. “We know they will struggle. I’m expecting that we may have a high dropout rate and that worries me. For an individual, the impact of dropping out can be far worse than not getting in in the first place.”

Melissa Hariz had to rely on Kingston University’s hardship fund after her part-time job dried up in the pandemic.

Nick Hillman, director of the Higher Education Policy Institute thinktank, says university bosses are right to be worried about dropout rates, which will be bad for both students and university finances. “To be frank, the university experience won’t be as good because so much has to be different, from how they are taught to how they socialise,” he says.

Many institutions are already facing an uncertain future. “If you lose a first year you don’t just lose their £9,250 fees for the year – you lose nearly £28,000 over the three years of their degree,” Hillman says.

At Kingston University, staff have been contributing out of their own pockets to an emergency campaign to help poorer students. Forty per cent of the university’s students are from households with an income of £25,000 or less a year, and the vast majority work to support themselves through their degrees. For them, the sudden loss of part-time jobs has been a disaster, and during lockdown Kingston paid out £900,000 to help.

Jenni Woods, head of access, participation and inclusion at Kingston, says: “It was really important that we alleviated that financial pressure for students, because in the midst of this crisis they also had exams looming. It is hard to focus on studying when you don’t know how you will pay your rent or pay for food.” Woods says that while some students will have been supported by their families during lockdown, “for many of our students that just wasn’t an option as their families were struggling financially too”.

Melissa Hariz, who graduated from her film-making course at Kingston this summer, was given a hardship grant to help pay her rent. Like most students, she had a student loan for her living costs, but this still left her £1,500 short on her rent. Hariz had been relying on a job making fundraising calls for the university, but when much of the campus closed during lockdown, she was left with no way to pay her bills.

Jenni Woods, head of access at Kingston University, which has paid out £900,000 to hard-up students during the pandemic: ‘It was really important that we alleviated that financial pressure.’ Photograph: Linda Nylind/the Guardian

“I have some anxiety already and not having enough money in my final year heightened that,” she says. “It was such an overwhelming feeling to have so much pressure coming from all different angles.”

Hariz’s story is being repeated across the country. At the University of the West of England, in Bristol, bosses are thinking hard about diverting money, earmarked for widening participation, to their student hardship fund after a big increase in requests for help.

Prof Steve West, the vice-chancellor, says: “We are saying please come and talk to us early. When financial problems escalate, that’s when mental health starts to suffer.”

Michelle Morgan, a former academic who advises universities on the student experience, fears many new students will find it difficult to adapt to online learning, and says existing students may be less engaged after months studying in their bedrooms at home. “There is this assumption that young people today are digital natives who won’t struggle with some teaching being online. That might be the case with social media but it’s definitely not with learning,” she says.

Morgan is concerned that many freshers won’t cope with the huge transition from lockdown to university. “You’ve got students starting university this year who in the last seven months have lost the discipline of learning and time management. They knew they didn’t have A-level exams so they have been winding down,” she says.

Many universities have invested in sophisticated data analytics to track their students online, not only monitoring whether they are watching lectures and using the electronic library, but also how long they spend looking at particular pages. At UWE, for instance, West says if a student’s online study patterns change it will trigger an alert and a coach will contact them to check if they need help.

But Prof Jacqueline Stevenson, director of the centre for lifelong learning at Leeds University, says: “It’s obvious if someone doesn’t turn up to a physical tutorial, but it can be much harder to tell if a student is engaging online.” Her centre has a team of “student advocates” for the first term to help check students are managing their course.

The centre delivers nursing apprenticeships and Stevenson is conscious that nursing students may need extra support. “Some have been dealing with very difficult work challenges during the pandemic, as well as being parents or carers.”

Hillman says the dropout rate will depend on how good universities are at supporting their students. “You can stem it if your students have a sense of belonging and if you catch problems early,” he says.

However, Stevenson thinks that for some students, taking a break from their course will be the best thing, rather than a catastrophe. “Dropping out can be a pejorative term and is caught up with the idea of failure. But if someone makes a sensible decision to leave, and may come back later to finish their course, that should be celebrated. A student can carry that feeling of failure with them for a very long time.”