Association of University Teachers

Student retention - problems and solutions


In recent years AUT members have expressed the view that the student experience has suffered from the under-funded expansion of higher education and from increased financial hardship. One of the specific problems to emerge is the significant number of students who are failing to complete their studies. This is reflected in the select committee's report on student retention in higher education. [i]

What is the scale of the problem?

According to the latest figures (1997-98), the rate of 'wastage' or 'non-completion' in UK higher education is 17%. [ii] Eighty-three per cent completion rates, however, are better than most other OECD countries, for example France (55%), Germany (72%) and the USA (63%), though lower than Japan (90%). [iii] While the proportion of UK students leaving higher education early has remained more or less constant over the last decade, there is no room for complacency.

This is because:

  • Comparing drop out rates in different countries is fraught with methodological difficulties. In the US for example - where there is an extensive system of credit accumulation - leaving a course before the final year has less disastrous implications for students than in the UK.

  • Although the proportion of students leaving higher education early remained more or less constant throughout the 1990s, the increase in student numbers has resulted in growing costs to the UK public purse. The most recent calculation puts the cost of non-completion in higher education at £200 million per year. [iv] 

  • There are significant institutional variations in student retention. Non-completion rates are much higher in inner-city, post-1992 universities than research-intensive institutions.

The AUT believes that two key factors are particularly important in contributing to the problem of student retention: 

  • growing student hardship; and 

  • the reduced amount of time available for staff to provide academic and social support to students.

Other staffing issues are also contributing to student retention problems. These include:

  • the doubling of student staff ratios over the past two decades without a corresponding increase in student support services;

  • the increasing use of casual and hourly-paid staff to teach undergraduates, resulting in fewer opportunities to provide academic and pastoral support;

  • growing difficulties in recruiting and retaining sufficient academic and related staff, resulting in reduced contact time with students; and

  • declining levels of pay, particularly in terms of starting salaries, and the contribution of this to staff recruitment and retention problems.

1.  Student debt & hardship

Financial hardship, levels of debt and the need for students to undertake long hours of employment in term time, are major elements in decisions to withdraw from university. [v] Research shows that students from low income groups are far more likely to withdraw because of financial difficulties than students from more privileged backgrounds. [vi] Financial problems have been exacerbated by the removal of the maintenance grant and the introduction of tuition fees. These developments have led to an increased reliance on paid work during term time, which can interfere with academic study and timetables. AUT members increasingly comment on the difficulties experienced by students who are forced to work long hours in part-time jobs in order to make ends meet, and who, as a consequence, fall behind in their academic work and perform below their abilities. Such factors can feed into a student’s decision to discontinue his or her studies.

AUT policy:

The AUT continues to urge a return to a system of targeted maintenance grants as the best means of guaranteeing wider access and improved completion rates. We also recommend that the Westminster government makes long-term plans for the removal of tuition fees in favour of Cubie-style post-graduation contributions to fee costs. In the meantime, we urge the government to use up-front fees exclusively in higher education.  

2. Student support: the staff role

Supporting students throughout their academic careers is also important in ensuring that they complete their studies. Apart from advice provided by NUS and university welfare services, students often rely on academic staff as a source of informal support. Students from non-traditional backgrounds are often in greater need of support and guidance than middle class students. However, the informal support role of academic and academic-related staff is being undermined by current inadequacies in funding, pay and conditions.

Student:staff ratios

A key problem is rising student:staff ratios. Student numbers have expanded dramatically in the past three or four decades. In the early 1960s, only one young person in twenty entered full-time higher education. By 1997-98 the figure had risen to one in three (34%) for the UK as a whole and around 45% in Scotland and Northern Ireland.  However, the increase in academic and academic-related staff has not kept pace. Between 1980 and 1999 the student academic staff ratio (SSR) virtually doubled from 9:1 to 17:1 in the UK (in the USA it is 14:1 and in Japan it is 13:1). At the same time, public funding per student has been cut by more than 30%.

The consequences of this underfunded expansion are:

  • larger class/lecture sizes with a sharp decrease in small group teaching and in opportunities to provide support to individual students;

  • reductions in laboratory and other practical work because of cost-cutting or pressure on facilities;

  • lack of adequate student access to libraries and computing facilities; and

  • lecturers having difficulties in finding time with intensive workloads to pursue their own professional development, e.g. using new IT-based systems to enhance their teaching.

Academic staff are now working on average 55 hours a week in term-time, compared to just over 40 hours in the 1960s. [vii] Owing to demands from other areas, particularly pressure to contribute to the research assessment exercise, there is now much less time for staff to offer support to students who encounter personal or study-related problems.

AUT policy:

The AUT recommends that over the next decade the government provides funding to decrease SSR in each country of the UK to 15:1 (currently only Scotland is at this level). During the next three years, we recommend creating a minimum of 1000 posts per year for staff engaged in learning support, primarily academic staff, but also computer, library and other related staff involved in teaching and learning activities.

Casualisation and learner support

Another related issue is the use of fixed-term and casual employment. According to the survey in the Bett report (1999), there are now an estimated 30,000 casual hourly-paid staff carrying out academic and related roles in UK higher education. [viii]  They represent nearly a fifth of all teaching staff and some 38% of teaching staff in post-1992 higher education institutions outside Scotland.

The AUT does not believe that the quality of teaching is necessarily of a lower standard when conducted by part-time or casual staff, although a recent study found one or two 'grounds for major concern'. [ix] However, on courses that rely on large numbers of hourly paid teachers, it becomes much more difficult to deal with student queries and problems of course organisation. Hourly-paid staff are only paid for their direct teaching time,  and therefore marking and office hour facilities are essentially 'unpaid extras'. First year courses in particular tend to be over-reliant on casual staff, including postgraduate tutors. This may be crucial since the 'first year experience' is the key to student retention. In order to explore the relationship in more detail, a study of the effects of casual employment practices on the support and pastoral care of students is needed.

AUT policy:

The AUT campaigns for universities and the research councils to reduce the use of fixed term contracts in higher education.

Alongside this, we urge universities to implement recommendation 56 of the Bett report (1999) which calls for 'greater investment of time and resources in the training and development of all groups of staff… particularly for part-time staff and those on fixed-term contracts'. [x]

3. Staff shortages and the impact on students

Recruiting and retaining high quality staff is becoming a growing problem in higher education. The Bett report found there were particular difficulties in business subjects, information technology, electronic engineering, accountancy, law and some rarer specialisms. A quantitative survey, by the Office of Manpower Economics, of 170 HEIs in October 1999, found that recruitment and retention difficulties had increased since the Bett study. In addition, in-depth qualitative case studies, conducted by Industrial Relations Services, in 13 diverse HEIs during 1999 found that all 13 institutions were experiencing recruitment problems in specific academic specialisms and support functions, particularly in subject areas crucial to the knowledge-driven economy. [xi]

Staff shortages are likely to result in larger university class sizes, reduced student contact hours and a greater dependence on less qualified staff to teach specialist courses. An increasing turnover of staff is also likely to damage the continuity of educational and pastoral support students receive.

Pay and starting salaries

Pay shortfalls for academic and related staff in recent years have clearly contributed to recruitment and retention problems among staff. Over the past two decades academic and academic-related staff in the pre-92 sector and academic staff in the post-92 sector have seen very little genuine increase in their salaries. In fact, their pay has been cut in real terms in nine of the years between 1981-82 and 2000-01. The 1999 Bett report showed that academics' pay has fallen 30 per cent behind average earnings for non-manual employees in the UK since 1981, a finding which supports data in recent pay claims by The AUT.

Starting salaries for academic and related staff are particularly problematic. The boxes (in the appendix) provide some dramatic examples. While most of the comparator jobs are for employees who can start work after leaving school, the minimum qualification for academic and academic-related posts is a bachelor’s degree, lasting between three and seven years. Most academic and research posts also require a further minimum of three years spent studying for a PhD.

Postgraduate recruitment and retention

The relative unattractiveness of an academic career, particularly in relation to pay, is harming the retention of graduate students. The value of PhD stipends, despite recent increases, also remains inadequate. As a consequence, there is a serious shortfall of individuals undertaking doctoral research in key subjects such as economics/business studies, mathematics/IT, physics and engineering. [xii]

AUT policy:

The AUT recommends catching-up in full the long-standing pay decline of 30 per cent in academic and related pay, and dealing with gender pay differentials, as a way of reducing staff recruitment and retention problems.  We also recommend further substantial increases in PhD stipends.

AUT research
June 2001

Appendix 1: Starting Salaries

Poor start 1

Researcher, post-92 higher education, £11,086

Sewage operator, Thames Water, £12,031[xiii]

Poor start 2

Lecturer, post-92 higher education, £15,349

Unskilled operator, Van den Bergh Foods, £15,755[xiv]

Poor start 3

Researcher and academic related (incl. London weighting), pre-92 higher education, £18,420

Assistant lifts & escalator staff (working nights), London Underground, £22,247[xv]

Poor start 4

Lecturer, pre-92 higher education, £20,865 (incl. London weighting)

Metropolitan Police constable (18 years, on appointment), £22,635


[i]House of Commons Education and Employment Committee (2001) Higher Education: Student Retention, HC124. 

[ii]HEFCE (2000) Performance indicators for higher education, 00/40, HEFCE.

[iii] OECD (2000), Education at a glance: OECD Indicators 2000, Paris: OECD, Table C4.1.

[iv] Professor Mantz Yorke, of Liverpool John Moores University, evidence to the select committee inquiry into student retention, in House of Commons Education and Employment Committee (2001) Higher Education: Student Retention, HC124, paragraph 23.

[v]C. Callender, Student Income and Expenditure Survey, DfEE: London, December 2000. 

[vi]HEFCE (1997) Undergraduate non-completion in higher education in England, HEFCE 97/29.

[vii] Stephen Court (1996), The Use of Time by Academic and Related Staff, Higher Education Quarterly, Vol. 50 No 4 pp 237-260.

[viii]Sir Michael Bett (1999), Independent Review of Higher Education Pay and Conditions, Stationery Office, Appendix D5. According to Bett, this probably under-estimates the total staffing the sector (see Appendix D76).

[ix] A. Chitnis and G. Williams (1999) Casualisation & Quality, NATFHE/IoE, p. 43. 

[x]Bett (1999), R56.

[xi]Both reports can be found in CVCP (2000), Recruitment and retention in employment in UK higher education, CVCP.

[xii]HEFCE (2000) Fundamental Review of Research Policy and Funding, HEFCE, par. 221; Strategic Marketing Associates (1999) Survey of Postgraduate Students and Permanent Staff in Information Technology and Computer Science, EPSRC website.

[xiii] IDS, Report 815, August 2000, p. 26.

[xiv] IDS, Report 805, March 2000, p. 26.

[xv] IDS, Report 785, May 1999, p. 31.

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