LibLink: David Laws – The road to student retention

David Laws has been writing for Times Higher Education focussing on the worrying number of disadvantaged students dropping out of higher education:

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.

Laws wants institutions to focus not just on recruiting more disadvantaged students but on retaining them once there:

If they recruit more students from disadvantaged backgrounds (which I hope they do), they need a clear plan for supporting them. The fact is that such support infrastructure is often below par at our most competitive and elite institutions; the Social Mobility and Child Poverty Commission claimed in its 2015 report State of the Nation that the most selective institutions have the biggest gaps in their non-continuation rates between their most and least advantaged students.

And in particular greater support for those with mental ill health:

But it is not just socially disadvantaged students who need stronger support at university. There has, for instance, been an increase in the number of all types of students who identify as having mental health issues. That doesn’t necessarily mean more students today have mental illnesses: it could be that greater awareness has resulted in more students identifying symptoms or being willing to confide in others. But it does highlight how critical an issue it is for universities to deal with. We know that well-targeted mental health support can help young people to continue in higher education where otherwise they might have dropped out.

You can read David’s piece in full here.

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This entry was posted in LibLink.


  • Oh lawks, holes, shovels, digging ….
    There is a serious issue abour preparedness for study, and certain bottom feeder heis have terrible progression/attririon rates (each one of which represents someone leaving without a qualficiation and with significant debt) – but the coalition fees fiasco clouds everything LDs say on this still.

  • Conor McGovern 28th Apr '16 - 3:38pm

    Really the irony. If I remember correctly Conference voted for a graduate tax in 2010/11 so the idea that people like Laws had no choice or any bargaining power over fees is laughable.

  • Stephen Hesketh 28th Apr '16 - 8:30pm

    Conor McGovern 28th Apr ’16 – 3:38pm
    Indeed Conor; irony on steroids.

    Such a pity David Laws wasn’t involved in the writing of Reclaiming Liberalism, in the movement to make the Liberal Democrats a party of grown up politics, in the negotiation of the coalition agreement and, while out of office, as an ongoing close advisor to Nick Clegg.

  • Bill Gates was a university drop-out, and Steve Jobs. Academia is not for everyone yet there is significant pressure on young people to go to university. Thus it is inevitable and obvious that pressed young men and women will find the study requirements not to their tastes and quit. The fact is they should not have gone in the first place. We need far more high quality vocational options, far fewer pointless university courses that get students no further than the nearest call centre.

  • Nothing about rewriting history in David Law’s article.
    China, South Korea, and Taiwan have increased higher education. These are the countries getting ahead.

  • Allan Brame 29th Apr '16 - 7:13am

    @Manfarang. Precisely. I don’t see anything in David Laws’ article about the past: he is addressing the current situation and proposing ideas for dealing with it.
    The past cannot be changed. The future, however, is more flexible.
    Perhaps @Stephen Hesketh could try playing the ball rather than the player

  • Ed Shepherd 29th Apr '16 - 8:33am

    The best way to encourage student retention and to encourage disadvantaged people to keep studying is to inroduce a system of lifelong availabilty of learning funded through a progressive taxation system, not through loans.

  • Simon Banks 29th Apr '16 - 9:50am

    OK, David Laws supported some very damaging things in the past. So that’s a reason not to listen when he talks sense, good (social) Liberal sense, now? As an Education minister, he did some good work and was a more effective brake on Tory inequality and privilege than some of his Liberal Democrat colleagues in other places.

    Yes, university education is not for everyone. Yes, some dropouts can look out on dropping out as a good decision. A lot will regret it. I don’t really understand what johnmc is saying, but I hope it’s not that many student dropouts from disadvantaged backgrounds have only themselves to blame while the prosperous have stronger characters. This is not about some students wasting their chances through laziness. It’s about more students from disadvantaged backgrounds failing.

    David Laws makes a good point. As with the NHS and the economy, people measure something and are satisfied with a good score, but forget that there may be something much more important (but a bit harder to measure) they’re ignoring.

  • Peter Watson 29th Apr '16 - 12:11pm

    @Ian Sanderson (RM3) “A young person in their late teens is developing rapidly, and especially if they have no university family background or acquaintance with a range of professionals may discover all sorts of new possibilities.”
    I think that this is an incredibly important point.
    It is also why I think the changes to A-levels under the last government were a terrible mistake. The change to AS and A-levels increased the emphasis on choosing three A-level subjects at 16 which are “right” for future university and career options. I don’t think it is fair on children to have to make such important decisions so early, possibly ruling out future opportunities that they were not aware of. I would much prefer to see a wider range of academic study from 16-18 to allow a much more informed choice of university subjects, followed by a university-level foundation year to prepare in a more specialised way.
    This is before we even get on to the whole area of vocational and academic choices and career paths at 16 …

  • Stephen Hesketh 29th Apr '16 - 3:56pm

    Allan Brame 29th Apr ’16 – 7:13am
    Allan, you are of course right. My annoyance that Mr Laws and others have never admitted the mistakes made in coalition, their Tory-lite economic policies and the damage thereby caused to our party clearly got the better of me!

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