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17 August 2023

Don’t blame teachers for university drop-out rates

The problem of young people struggling in higher education cannot be solved in the classroom alone.

By Nadeine Asbali

Some say we’re agents of wokery, others that we’re dictators offended by the mere sight of an outlandish haircut. We’re greedily holding the nation’s children to ransom for even more money to spend during our already excessive holidays, or else we’re cruelly forcing bored and uninspired children to endure algebra and Shakespeare.

The latest accusation thrown at teachers is that we fail to prepare young people adequately for university because we’re too busy singing “Kumbaya” and learning everyone’s pronouns, or something like that. Recent figures show that as many as 30 per cent of students are dropping out of some university courses; across all full-time undergraduates who started in 2020-21 the rate is a record 11 per cent. The number of people withdrawing from their student loan early in the academic year is also at an all-time high.

Notably, these are the students who completed their A-levels during the pandemic, when exams were scrapped and teachers were asked to assign grades instead, drawing on mock exams, classroom coursework and predicted grades. Teachers went too soft on their pupils, our critics say, allowing them to gain places on university courses they were never capable of completing. (Private schools benefited most from this, with some awarding double the number of A and A* grades normally attained, while state-school students were disproportionately bound by their schools’ often low attainment histories.) To better prepare young people for higher education, the argument goes, A-levels need to get tougher. But the university drop-out rate cannot be solved in the classroom alone because its causes are broad, generation-defining and socio-economic.

It’s undeniable that results were higher under teacher grading, and fell when exams returned. No matter how experienced, no teacher can reliably predict how every single student would perform in an exam, and I know I’m not the only one who lost more than a few nights of sleep worrying about whether I had undersold a student who could have pulled it out of the bag at the last minute. However, such a vital developmental stage was stolen from young people by the pandemic that if teachers inadvertently cushioned their transition into higher education then that was the least they deserved.

When the world shut down, many of my students had their access to stable, consistent learning taken from them. Many young people are now struggling with the mental impact of such social isolation. After two years of online learning, is it any wonder that being asked to sit in giant lecture theatres or engage in debate in seminars left young people floundering? Perhaps the struggles of students are less about lefty teachers being too lenient and more about the ways society has not yet recovered from the pandemic.

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[See also: In defence of GCSEs and A-levels]

Students who took their A-levels during the pandemic also entered secondary school during austerity, and now face a cost-of-living crisis as students. Poverty does not wait for students outside the school gates: it follows them into the classroom. It means children coming into school too hungry to concentrate, or exhausted because they spent the night caring for their siblings while their mother worked – all this before they even reach university. It is no coincidence that the institutions with the highest drop-out rates also have a higher-than-average number of working-class and ethnic-minority students.

A decade ago, tuition fees and maintenance loans were presented to students like me as the miraculous answer to our families’ inability to fund our degrees. Today, many undergraduates take on an unprecedented level of student debt – debt that those from wealthier backgrounds often do not have to incur. Due to recent changes to the student finance system, the price of a university education could cost up to 50 per cent more.

As the gap between wages and the cost of living grows, the poorest students – who often already have to work to finance their degrees – have to work longer hours, leaving them with less time to study. Students from disadvantaged backgrounds are also more likely to have caring responsibilities or longer commutes to campus. In the face of a lack of genuine, transformational government support for the most disadvantaged students, the cost of further study is becoming insurmountable for many young people. It is certainly difficult to imagine how this would be different if only their school had been a little less soft on them. No number of maths lessons can prepare young people for the impossible sums of debt, low salaries and rising rents and energy bills.

Harsher schooling won’t prevent the insurmountable barrier of poverty driving students to abandon their degrees. To call for tougher A-levels is to call for university to be made less accessible. The question of how to tackle drop-out rates strikes at the heart of what role we expect universities to play: are they a Hunger Games-esque test of strength, grit and determination (read: wealth, privilege and stability), where only those deemed worthy make it to graduation? Or are they vehicles of social mobility: places where, just like school, struggling students are nurtured and supported rather than simply weeded out?

To blame drop-out rates on schools, struggling with cuts, the legacy of the pandemic and educating already-disadvantaged children through a cost-of-living crisis, is to ignore the government failures that are pushing out the very students for whom a university education would be the most transformational.

[See also: Why universities are making us stupid]

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