Student Retention: a Review of Policy and Literature

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Student Retention:

A review of policy and literature

Introduction

This review was commissioned in April 2008 by the University of the Arts, London (UAL). Its purpose is to critically appraise research and policy literature on student retention in the UK; and to summarise the position of UAL in that national context, drawing on existing data-sets.

This report begins by outlining the recent policy context and then reviews the research literature under seven sections. The first of these considers the concepts that are used in the field and the theoretical frameworks that have been brought to bear on empirical findings. The next five sections summarise how the research on student retention addresses some fundamental empirical questions: who leaves; from which institutions; when do they leave; why do they leave; and where do they go? The next section of the review of research literature gives a summary of the characteristics of interventions in other institutions that have aimed to improve student retention. The final section situates UAL within the national context, drawing on institutional and national statistics and a range of qualitative projects that are relevant to student retention. The report concludes with a set of questions for further research. The methodology adopted for this review is outlined in the Appendix.

The policy context

Whilst the ‘access movement’ has been active since the 1960s and 1970s and has always encompassed a concern with student progression and achievement, student retention has become a focus for policymakers in the UK since the late 1990s. Tony Blair’s announcement in 1999 that his government intended to see 50% of all 18-30 olds taking part in higher education by 2010 has dominated the policy arena and has always included the desire to increase and retain the participation of non-traditional students.

As an area of policy, widening access, and in particular student retention, is one of the most studied and theorised aspects of higher education. This is reflected in the range and number of reports on the subject that have emerged from several government departments and agencies. Since 2000, the following have been published specifically on student retention:

Public Accounts Committee (2008) Staying the Course: The Retention of Students in Higher Education, Tenth Report of session for 2007/8 National Audit Office (2007). Staying the Course: The Retention of Students in Higher Education Department for Education and Skills (2003) Widening Participation in Higher Education National Audit Office (2002). Improving Student Achievement in the English Higher Education Sector Powney, J. (2002). Successful student diversity: Case studies of practice in learning and teaching and widening participation, HEFCE. Select Committee on Employment and Skills (2001). Higher Education: Student Retention. Sixth Report.

In addition, research has been funded by the Higher Education Academy and Universities UK on retention:

Yorke, M. and B. Longden (2007 and 2008). The First Year Experience of Higher Education in the UK. York, Higher Education Academy. Thomas, L., J. Quinn, et al. (2002). Student services: Effective approaches to retaining students in higher education.

Two principal issues dominate these reports: social justice and value for money. It has been argued (Yorke and Longden, 2004) that there is considerable tension between these aims and with a third general policy aim of assuring quality in public services. All three cannot be ‘maximally achieved’ and so ‘trade-offs’ are necessary. This argument presupposes that the reasons for student withdrawal are located solely with students rather than in inappropriate institutional systems or curricula.

The main interlocutor on issues of student retention for the higher education sector is the relevant funding council. The Higher Education Funding Council for England has 22 performance indicators and one of them is...
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