On course for success? Student retention at university

This report analyses the factors that affect student drop-out rates from universities across England.

It argues that there has been much focus and activity directed towards increasing the proportion of students from ethnic minority and disadvantaged backgrounds that enter university, but that students from these groups remain more likely to drop out. This must change if social mobility ambitions are to be achieved: ultimately, retention is as important as access.

Tackling non-continuation at university is vital. Each drop out represents a loss of potential, a poor and probably confidence-sapping experience for a student and an investment in tuition costs which is likely to have a low return.

However, while the UK’s track record of expanding the number and diversity of people attending university has been impressive, drop-out rates are creeping up, rising from 5.7% to 6.3% between 2012/13 and 2014/15 for young first-time students. There is also significant variation in performance across regions and it is disadvantaged students who are much more likely to leave early.


Our research into the retention challenge draws on analysis of HESA data and other sources and reveals that:

  • London performs worst across all English regions with nearly one in ten students dropping out during their first year of study.
  • London over-performs in getting its young people into university, but the capital’s universities struggle to keep students. London’s young drop-out score is high, second only to the North West.
  • Many of the disadvantaged groups targeted through Widening Access are also the groups who are most likely to drop out. Institutions are more likely to have higher drop-out rates where:
    • They have a higher in-take of black students.
    • They have a higher proportion of students whose parents work(ed) in lower level occupations.
    • They have a higher proportion of students who come from low participation localities.
  • Universities with lower student satisfaction scores in the National Student Survey have higher drop-out rates on average.
  • Our research indicates that campus universities may have inherent advantages in holding on to students as compared with non-campus institutions. This is likely to derive from the importance of a ‘sense of belonging’ and is worthy of deeper analysis.

Download The Report: PDF

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