Mass exodus - the student retention challenge

Updated: Jan 14

The education sector must brace itself for an increase in student non-continuation. This is a challenge without the added impact of Covid 19.

Universities are in the eye of a storm, institutions are under enormous pressure to support staff and students now studying under COVID-19 conditions, but we need to be talking about student retention, wellbeing and attainment at all times. There is the added issue for universities as they support students returning to study from the holidays and how many engage with the new term, with staff reaching out to every student to check on their well-being and academic progress.

The key challenge for students has been through their ability to settle into university life and to socialise, make friends through the usual opportunities around the campus, nightlife and their accommodation. The first few weeks at university is when creeping doubt sets in, there may never be a single defining moment that sowed the seed of doubt, just a feeling that they were not sure about Uni, their course, being away from home, meeting new people, these small nagging feelings are often not articulated with others but kept hidden in the hope that they will go away, and for some a single event can cement their reason for staying or leaving, such as an interaction with staff member.

Institutions have significant amounts of data about students, but very few use data tools to identify those most at risk of withdrawing or understanding student mental health and wellbeing upon entry

A lack of confidence is often the root issue, students are most concerned about before arriving at university is… ‘will I make friends? will I meet people who will like me, have similar interests?’ the quick response is yes, but as young adults they are nervous about meeting new people, and some may struggle in their new environment

It takes time for tutors to get to know their students and vice versa, the first seven weeks are the most important in determining whether a student will stay past the census point (usually 1st December). The new year has brought a 3rd national lockdown and this adds more pressure to universities who were managing a staggered return. The teaching programme has been put under enormous stress and this can only impact onto students whose first year at University has been unlike any other.

The problem therefore for universities is that the data they hold on students doesn’t identify their individual propensity to withdraw, as mentioned the first seven weeks are critical in determining whether a student will stay or drop out early, navigating the hidden curriculum. However, there are digital tools that can help institutions identify those most likely to withdraw and thereby direct appropriate resources to support those individuals. It would be helpful to know in advance a measure of student confidence and their wellbeing upon entry, this would allow for more meaningful discussions much earlier on and in turn reduce the likelihood of early withdrawal.

Institutions must put mental health and wellbeing at the centre of their activities, particularly now, for staff and students. Finally its worth looking at David Kernohan’s WONKHE blog ‘Fifty days to leave your Uni?’ which outlines this peculiar void in non-continuation data, its messy, complicated and a bit fickle. Nick Hillman's HEPI Policy Note 28 has also provided a useful short guide to non-continuation in the UK, it neatly summaries the complexity of the problem, but we should also acknowledge that the UK perform particularly well when it comes to student retention compared to other nations... so we are doing something that works.

Institutions need to get more personal with their students, and identify their individual needs while at university, Retinent Ltd can help identify those students who are most likely to withdraw and can be targeted with the right support so they are better able to cope with challenges and develop their confidence.


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