The number of students dropping out of university courses has increased at both of Northern Ireland’s universities.
Annual performance indicators from the Higher Education Statistics Agency show that 12 per cent of first year students who started courses at the University of Ulster in 2007 had dropped out by the following year.
In the same year, 6 per cent of first year students at Queen’s University dropped out.
The ‘non-continuation’ figures had increased at both universities from the previous year. In 2007-2008, 12 per cent of overall students dropped out at University of Ulster, while just 6 per cent dropped out at Queen’s. On average, 7.2 per cent of students across the higher education sector drop out each year.
While many factors can lead to students dropping out, Professor Tony Gallagher, Pro-vice Chancellor for Academic Planning, Staffing and External Relations at Queen’s, said that rates “varied considerably across disciplines” but students who had “relatively weak entry qualifications” were more likely to leave.
Some reasons for the drop out figures were a lack of commitment to the course, financial pressures, homesickness and poor academic progress.
Professor Denise McAlister, Pro-Vice Chancellor for Teaching and Learning at the University of Ulster said that the reasons why students drop out of university are “complex”. She claims that the official statistics do not take into account the socio-economic background of the students.
McAlister argues that the University of Ulster has proportionately more students from disadvantaged backgrounds and these individuals have characteristics which can increase the risk of them dropping out of university, e.g. childcare needs, part-time working and financial pressures.
Speaking about drop out rates during Assembly questions, Danny Kennedy said there “appears to be a correlation between widening participation and increased drop-out rates”. When asked what his department is doing to tackle the problem, he told members that DEL pays higher education institutions around £1.5 million per year in the form of a widening participation premium “to support the recruitment and retention of students from disadvantaged backgrounds”.
McAlister explained that the University of Ulster has put forward measures to tackle the problem. These include individual studies advisers, small group teaching, financial help and advice.
Queen’s has also developed a web-based portal for prospective students, reviewed the way that open days are organised, and established events for teachers and pupils so that prospective students have a better idea or the demands and rewards of university.
“It is not enough simply to bring students into the university. We need to ensure that they have the best possible opportunity to complete their course,” commented Gallagher.
Room for improvement
The University of Ulster’s Students Union President, Adrian Kelly, says that “very few students provide any great detail on why they decide not to continue with their academic studies”. The small amount of information he does receive includes family and personal reasons, finance and failure to pass exams.
“The university does not perform as well as some other institutions in its regard to its retention figures. This has been highlighted by the university itself and is why they have set a range of targets and initiatives to improve this,” comments Kelly.
The president explains that all faculties within the university have been set new targets to reduce the number of students dropping out. Each first year student has been assigned a studies advisor to act as a mentor and study skills is embedded into the curriculum. Course descriptions have also been updated in prospectuses to provide “more accurate information” for potential students so they have a “greater understanding of what the course will involve”.