Magazine article The Times Higher Education Supplement : THE

On the Road to Retention

Magazine article The Times Higher Education Supplement : THE

On the Road to Retention

Article excerpt

In an uncapped sector, strengthening support infrastructure is vital for keeping students on track, says David Laws

The UK government's target to double the number of disadvantaged young people going to university by 2020 is laudable. Access to higher education offers a platform for young people to succeed and is central to establishing a meritocratic society.

Nevertheless, while access provides the foundations, it doesn't build the house. If we're really serious about meritocracy, we have to be ever vigilant about what happens to young people once they are at university too.

The issue of retention is at the very heart of the social justice agenda but it suffers from a lack of attention and, frankly, a lack of care from both the media and politicians. The most recent statistics from the Higher Education Statistics Agency are a real concern, showing that the proportion of disadvantaged students dropping out increased from 7.7 per cent in 2012-13 to 8.2 per cent in 2013-14. While such rates are low in comparison with international standards, they are still too high. The financial and social consequence of dropping out of university - particularly for those from disadvantaged backgrounds - shouldn't be underestimated.

Plans for further reform may inadvertently make matters worse in the coming years unless we act quickly to offset the impact of policy. One example is the removal of the cap on undergraduate student numbers. This is undoubtedly the right thing to do: it will allow successful universities to grow and permit more students to attend their first-choice institution. But when this policy was introduced in Australia, dropout rates increased.

There are, of course, significant differences between the UK's higher education system and Australia's. For example, the UK is currently experiencing a downturn in the number of people turning 18 (projected to last into the 2020s), while Australia was seeing higher numbers when it removed its cap in 2012. But we must not be complacent. The funding structures incentivise universities to grow and they will respond as aggressively as possible. That's not a bad thing, but it will cause problems if those that expand rapidly are unable to deal with the consequences. …

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