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The percentage of full-time students who do not continue into a second year of higher education (HE) in England has remained low over the last decade. Between 2003-04 and 2009-10 it was around 8 per cent, and new data [Note 1] show that it then decreased in both 2010-11 and 2011-12.

Low non-continuation rates have been a consistent feature of English higher education since the mid-1990s [Note 2]. The latest information shows that retention rates have improved, even though numbers entering higher education have increased and there are more students going to university from disadvantaged backgrounds.

The trend in percentage of entrants transferring from one institution to another has been similar: around 3 per cent between 2003-04 and 2008-09, then fell to around 2 per cent between 2009-10 and 2011-12.

Successful participation for all students in higher education is critical to social mobility. While the overall figures are encouraging, the findings for 2011-12 reveal very different rates between particular groups [Note 3]: 

  • Gender Women were less likely to leave HE during their first year than men: 5.9 per cent and 7.6 per cent respectively in 2011-12. But men and women transferred to a different institution at similar rates: 2.1 per cent and 2.0 per cent respectively.
  • Ethnicity Black entrants had the highest rate of non-continuation of 9.4 per cent in 2011-12, and Chinese entrants had the lowest of 5.2 per cent in 2011-12.
  • School A higher percentage of state-school entrants were no longer in HE after year one than entrants from independent school: 6.5 per cent compared with 3.5 per cent in 2011-12.
  • Age Mature entrants were more likely to have left HE one year after entry. In 2011-12, 10.4 per cent of mature entrants left after one year compared with 5.7 per cent for young entrants.
  • Subject Computer science had the highest percentage of entrants no longer in HE in 2011-12 compared with other subjects at 11 per cent in 2011-12. Medicine and dentistry had the lowest rate at 1.9 per cent in 2011-12.
  • Disability Non-disabled entrants were less likely to remain in HE at the end of their first year, with 7.8 per cent not continuing in 2011-12, compared to disabled entrants at 6.2 per cent in 2011-12.
  • Social background Entrants from areas with low participation in HE were more likely than entrants in high participation areas to no longer be in HE at the end of year one: this is the case for both young and mature age groups.
  • Location London and the North West region had the highest percentage no longer in HE, while the South West had the lowest: in 2011-12 the percentages were 9.0, 7.7 and 5.3 per cent respectively. London had the highest percentage of entrants transferring, while the North East had the lowest.

These data can be explored further via the online interactive tool.

Whilst we know that factors including entry qualification, subject and age have an effect on non-continuation rates and degree outcomes, we also know, from other HEFCE analysis [Note 4], that there still remain some types of students who experience differential outcomes from higher education compared with others. HEFCE will be working with and supporting universities and colleges to understand and address these differences as a priority.

Professor Madeleine Atkins, HEFCE Chief Executive, said: 

‘This new HEFCE information confirms that non-continuation rates in England remain low relative to other countries and have improved despite the increase in participation during the last decade’.

‘There is, however, no room for  complacency as we see very different rates for men, students with disabilities, students from certain ethnic minority groups and mature students, as well as variations by region and subject. The interactive web pages that we have provided allow staff in universities and colleges to explore the data by different student and course characteristics, which will help them to understand and address the issues arising in their particular setting. We also want to work with institutions to get behind the statistics and support practice that will genuinely address barriers to student success.’

Notes

  1. The interactive web pages provide the latest information available about non-continuation rates and transfer rates for full-time first degree UK-domiciled entrants to higher education institutions (HEIs) in England between 2003-04 and 2011-12. The data are split by student and course characteristics. The pages include interactive charts to help explore the data, and information about the methodology and population.
  2. The performance indicators published by HESA have been monitoring non continuation since 1996-97.
  3. The findings described do not take account of students’ entry qualifications, subject and age, which are all known to affect non-continuation rates. While some of the differences found may still exist once these three factors are taken into account, for other characteristics considered these three factors may explain any and all differences.
  4. Other HEFCE analysis:
    1. In July 2013, we published ‘Higher education and beyond: outcomes from full-time first degree study’. This report assessed how, when factors such as entry qualifications, subject area of study, sex and ethnicity, different groups of students performed in terms of four outcomes:
      • whether they achieved a degree qualification
      • whether they achieved a first or upper second classification
      • whether they were degree qualified and in employment or further study
      • whether degree qualified and in graduate employment or further study.

      It revealed unexplained differences in outcomes for student from ethnic minority groups, men, student with disabilities not in receipt of Disabled Students Allowance and students from low participation neighbourhoods.

    2. In March 2014 we published ‘Differences in degree outcomes’ which also found unexplained differences in outcome for student from difference groups.