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Four out of five students starting a full-time course in England are expected to complete their course, the NAO reported today. The United Kingdom’s performance on retention compares favourably with most other OECD countries, during a period of expansion in higher education.

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In a new report to Parliament, published as students await their A level results, the NAO states that there is a strong likelihood that new full-time undergraduates on higher education courses will stay on and complete their studies. The report identifies scope for further improvements, for example in the minority of higher education institutions where retention has declined in recent years, and to support part-time students who face particular challenges and have lower rates of retention.

Today’s report shows a small improvement in 2004-05 in the rate of new full-time undergraduates in England expected to complete their course compared with 1999-2000, achieved during a period of expansion in higher education. At the same time, around 28,000 full-time and 87,000 part-time undergraduates starting in 2004-05 did not continue to a second year of study. Thirty institutions suffered a fall of at least one percentage point in their continuation rates of first year students since 2001-02, while 42 institutions’ continuation rates improved by at least one percentage point.

Student retention rates vary between institutions, reflecting a range of factors including how well students did in their previous studies and whether they are studying full or part time. Institutions such as St George’s Hospital Medical School (98.8 per cent) and the University of Oxford (98.6 per cent) have very high rates for full-time students continuing into their second year, partly reflecting the high entry criteria for students. Other institutions have lower rates (81.6 per cent was the lowest), and these partly reflect a more diverse student population.

There is a balance to be struck between widening participation (opening higher education up to people who might not traditionally have considered university) while improving retention, because students from different backgrounds need different support to complete their courses successfully. Participation has been increasing and widening gradually (between 1999-2000 and 2005-06, participation increased from 39 per cent to 43 per cent of people aged between 18 and 30 years), at the same time as retention rates have increased.

The gap between the best and worst performing institutions remains similar to 2001-02. Each institution has a continuation benchmark, which is calculated based on sector averages and takes account of the courses it offers and the qualifications of its students. The Higher Education Funding Council for England’s (HEFCE) arrangements for funding institutions (which are based on the numbers of students completing their year) and the publication of performance statistics provide incentives to institutions to maintain and improve retention, and the majority of institutions? actual retention rates are above or very close to their benchmark. Nearly a fifth of institutions? actual retention rates were at least two percentage points below their retention benchmark, and it is generally these institutions that need the most support and encouragement to improve their performance.

The number of students declaring a disability entering higher education has increased by over two-thirds between 2000-01 and 2005-06, from 82,000 to 138,000. Today’s report states that students with a disability who obtain Disabled Students’ Allowances are more likely to continue their course. However, the proportion of students receiving the Allowances vary widely between institutions and the report found that receipt of the Allowances among part-time students is low.

The report’s recommendations include that the Higher Education Funding Council should develop performance indicators for the retention of part-time students and commission research into students’ receipt of disability allowances. Higher education institutions, which operate autonomously, should reinforce and further develop support to students, and should evaluate and share good practice more widely. Every institution should have a clear strategy for retention, based on a good understanding of their students, and communicate it clearly to all parts of the organisation, so that all students can benefit from consistently good support.

"Compared to most other countries, a high proportion of students in higher education are successfully completing their courses. This is a good achievement at a time when higher education is being opened up to more students. But variations in retention rates between higher education institutions indicate that retention could be increased further, bringing major benefits to the extra students who would complete their studies and more value to the taxpayer and the economy from the public funds expended on higher education."

Sir John Bourn, head of the NAO


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