Students drop out from their courses for a variety of reasons. Early withdrawal is shaped by Socio-economic forces, students’ personal goals/ mission for being at university, the lived experience of studying and sometimes just bad luck. We may not be able to precisely weight these factors, but they appear pretty consistently in studies.
The sector has put in place a variety of strategies to support students and, in the UK, if you look at institutions’ Access and Participation Plans, you will see a plethora of approaches to helping disadvantaged students enter HE, and progress through it to graduate employment. These strategies are all designed to change the outcomes for the least advantaged students. I’m going to argue that they solve retention problems by improving students’ capacity to engage with their studies. You could argue that this is a ‘widening participation’, or ‘social mobility’ model, but the activities listed below will also potentially work with students who do not start from a disadvantaged background. I’m going to stick with Student Engagement Activity.
I’ve wanted for a long time to try and categorise these strategies. The following is a typology to look at how interventions are planned and structured. It contains two axes:
- Where the activity takes place – either within the academic domain or within the socio-cultural domain
- When the activity takes place – either as part of capacity building or as part of a post-trigger/alert intervention. Effectively before or after a problem arises.
This gives four types of activity
|Capacity building in the academic domain||Interventions in the academic domain|
|Capacity building in the socio-cultural domain||Interventions in the socio-cultural domain|
Why this categorisation?
For a long time, I’ve been struggling with the tension between improving student outcomes by building capacity but also needing to retain some form of backstop. It makes sense to spend most energy on building students’ capacity to engage through activities such as making them aware of expectations, building their confidence or scaffolding assessments. However, I just don’t think it’s realistic to remove the need for interventions. Therefore, I argue that any HEI needs a model that builds capacity amongst their student population, but also has a means to identify students at risk and support them when they cross an agreed threshold (for example low attendance, non-submission of work etc.). A former Pro-Vice Chancellor at my institution was on a one person campaign to de-stigmatise the word ‘remedial’, it ought to mean ‘remedying a problem’, not ‘this student is a lost cause’. I think that ship has sailed, but post-problem interventions are important.
I think that we are increasingly aware of the way that socio-economic disadvantage plays out in young people’s lives. We perceive it in the places that they live, the friends that they have and the challenges they face. One of the fastest ways to instigate change is to work through organisations such as Students’ Unions or Equality, Diversity and Inclusion teams. It may be easier to comprehend and quicker to make changes to the appearance of the campus, choice of imagery in prospectuses etc., than to tackle unconscious biases in the curriculum. I’m certain that change in the socio-economic domain is essential, however, students are at university to study a subject; interventions must include work within the academic domain.
How does the model look when activities are mapped on to it?
I’ve taken the model and added activities to it. Some are difficult to categorise into a single quadrant and tend to bleed across boundaries. I’ve clustered the activities into six groups.
- Curriculum, learning, teaching and assessment – e.g. developing a transition curriculum or extended induction
- Tutoring/ mentoring – e.g. using student mentors
- University systems – e.g. referrals to Student Support Services
- Belonging – both involvement in the governance of the institution and the role of communications
- Staff diversity / capacity – both staff awareness and diversity, but also the skills needed to work with more diverse students
- Student community/ personal capacity building – e.g. the benefits of volunteering opportunities
The model is a little bit Henry Moore/ Barbara Hepworth/the Moomins, but for me, it’s been an interesting exercise to think about where universities invest their money in improving student outcomes. I don’t want to set up oppositions, but I have a strong suspicion that the under-resourced area is going to be ‘university systems’. It might be interesting to see if it’s possible to quantify APP spending into each of the quadrants or against each of the groups.