Widening Participation and Student Support
Supporting Students to Improve Retention
The Attraction, Support and Retention Project
Connexions: a bridge for Widening Participation
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Widening Participation - Supporting Students to Improve Retention
The challenges faced by universities in effectively widening participation are well documented, and it is acknowledged that success will only be achieved with sustained and funded efforts over the long term. Key indicators are increasingly focused on outcomes, rather than on initiatives to achieve widening participation; demonstrating improving retention rates amongst the widening participation target groups will be a major criterion of success. Staff working with the Foundation Year students, one of MMU's major widening participation projects, are working to develop a range of student support systems to help achieve this end.
The Foundation Year at MMU provides an important route into HE within the region. Although the programme offers access to mature and international students, it is enormously popular with young people who have failed to gain the grades needed for their first choice of study, by providing a guaranteed university place (on passing) without the dismal business of re-sitting A Levels.
There is clear evidence nationally that retention rates are significantly worse amongst those from lower socio-economic groups, and particularly those with poor A Level grades. Subject of study is also significant e.g., medicine has a 2% drop out rate, engineering and technology 11%. (1) However, it is notoriously difficult to establish accurately why students leave courses and it is generally agreed the reasons are usually complex and multifarious, and can also include personal experiences (particularly in the early weeks of a course), wrong course choice, financial matters and domestic circumstances.
Foundation Year staff have developed and are piloting a series of initiatives to improve students' completion rates and progression to degree courses. With the significant majority of students falling into the high risk categories of poorer backgrounds and low grades, it is a major area of interest. It is too early to evaluate success, but the team has undergone a steep learning curve in introducing different strategies and evaluating their impact.
The remainder of this article is a description of what is being done now, experiences to date and plans for 2002/3.
Some students choose the wrong course. There is no research that conclusively links decisions made in clearing with higher drop out rates, except that these students may have lower grades. Pre-entry guidance is therefore the key to getting course choice right. All students who hold an offer of a place on the Foundation Year through UCAS are offered individual pre-entry advice. Relatively few took up the offer in 2001, and those who did focused on finance and accommodation questions - the two matters uppermost in students' minds. Additionally, course choice is discussed with every student at enrolment. Research suggests that many students have well developed plans by the end of Year 11 and that the University prospectus has significantly more influence on their decisions than advice offered by careers advisers, parents, teachers, etc.(2) Although pre-entry advice will continue to be offered, it is uncertain that it will have any meaningful impact on retention.
Many students face financial difficulties right from the point of entry to higher education and concerns are greatest amongst students from poorer backgrounds who are most likely to drop out over debt issues. It is impossible to judge the accuracy of statistics collected on student debt, but anecdotal evidence suggests the majority of Foundation Year students work in term time, particularly from Christmas onwards. Many admit to hiding debt from their families, which they find stressful. There are clear implications for attendance and academic work. Additionally, many students from poorer backgrounds have difficult home circumstances. Staff cannot solve these problems and can only be sympathetic. However, if most of our students experience some of these problems, there is a case for looking at our whole approach to teaching, timetabling and assessments. At the moment, this is a major issue still to be explored.
Ensuring students have a positive start in HE is an area where Foundation Year staff aim to make an impact. Students at greatest risk of dropping out are selective about the classes they attend right from the start of the course. Chasing poor attendees in the first weeks of term has been demonstrated to be effective in improving retention in further education. It is time consuming and tedious, but a small group of academic staff tried out a limited pilot scheme in the autumn term 2001 and "saved" a small number of students. The effort was frustrated by lack of effective vehicles of communication with the students. Next year there will be a more comprehensive approach, with students' personal email and mobile numbers collected at enrolment and staff closely monitoring attendance at core units. Poor attenders will be chased up the same week. The aim is to show students that they are valued and, by encouraging good attendance patterns, to improve performance and pass rates.
All Foundation Year students take core units in Application of Number, IT and Skills For Lifelong Learning. The SFLL Unit materials are being completely rewritten, with funding from the ESF, to integrate taught and on-line learning and to emphasize the application of study skills and personal skills into academic study and career planning. Additional support is provided in English Language, and for dyslexic students. Individual, confidential, interviews are available weekly to help students resolve both academic and non-academic issues, and there is an online mentoring scheme to offer independent advice and support. All students have a personal tutor who is routinely provided with a support pack of advisory materials.
The rationale for all these activities is to raise not only students' skills levels, but also their self confidence, which is often low on entry, often as a consequence of disappointing examination grades. The aim is to help students to progress effectively to degree courses and to 'hit the deck running', rather than stumbling and in so doing, to ensure that they are more likely to complete and gain the long term benefits of that success.
HEFCE:Undergraduate non-completion rates in HE in England 1997-1998.
Connor et al 1999,: Connor, Burton, Pearson, Pollard and Regan, Making the right choice - how students choose universities and colleges. Institute of Employment studies 1999.
Select Committee of Education and Employment 6th Report. Student Retention in Higher Education March 2001.
NAO 2002 Widening Participation in England. January 2002.
Pauline Hearn, Guidance Manager, Widening Participation Project