The Public Accounts Committee summoned witnesses from the DfE and Office for Students on Monday to discuss the dropout – or “non-continuation” – rate amongst alternative higher education providers, which currently stands at 25 per cent – more than twice the level of dropouts from mainstream tertiary educational institutions.
The meeting was called in response to a recent report by the National Audit Office (NAO), which tracks dropout rates across the higher education sector. Alternative higher education providers, which provide degrees, HNDs and HNCs, enrolled more than 50,000 students in 2015/16. They do not receive public funding, but they do have students who access public funds through student support.
The dropout rate has declined from 38 per cent in 2012/13, but the committee was keen to establish why one in four students drop out. Lib Dem MP and committee member Layla Moran, herself an ex-teacher, expressed concern at this statistic, questioning whether, with a drop-out rate this high, these education providers were good value for money.
In response, Jonathan Slater, permanent secretary at the Department for Education, highlighted the myriad of factors that could be behind a student terminating their studies early; “you’d see variations depending on the age of the student, the type of the course, which is why we have an individual benchmark for each.”
Pushing the witnesses, Moran questioned whether it was time for a stricter target to be imposed on alternative education providers. “What would you consider the target [on continuation rates]? Give us a number.” Slater insisted that it would be counter-productive to give a specific number, but reiterated his commitment to see the overall figure go down each year. “I wouldn’t want to rule out a new provider coming in with a particular objective of widening participation and [the DfE] taking a bit of a risk on that provider in the first year.”
Moran continued to press, asking if there was an “upper limit of non-continuation” that was acceptable to the witnesses. Nicola Dandridge, chief executive of the newly formed Office for Students, echoed Slater, stating it would be “dangerous” to have such a limit in place, as “there could be good reasons why a student chooses not to continue. For example, they could get a job.” Unconvinced by this reasoning, Moran pointed out that the NAO report “shows quite clearly that quality of teaching was the top reason” why the government had stepped in to investigate alternative higher education providers.
The report also highlighted that information is too slow to emerge from these institutions. “If a student dropped out in October, it would take well into the next academic year for something to actually concretely happen at that provider. Meanwhile, other people have already enrolled,” Moran stated. “Is that acceptable?”
Slater responded that “it’s not where we need to be. The intention is to be producing [data] on a termly basis.”
Speaking to Spotlight after the hearing, Moran said that the witnesses “weren’t clear on why [students] leave.” She, again, criticised the example they gave “flippantly” of students dropping out because they’d got a job.
“I think it’s fair to say that we were not satisfied at all by the level of thought that they had given their answers on why they didn’t want a target.” If this was a company or organisation, says Moran, targets would be in place. “Just give us an achievable number.”