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Measuring student progression

December 5, 2014

This letter from the head of London School of Business and Finance to the Guardian manages to conflate three separate measures of student progression.

This week’s report by the National Audit Office highlights dropout rates (Report, 2 December), which it suggests are higher in the private sector. However, when private colleges give mature students from disadvantaged backgrounds the opportunity to return to education, a completion rate of over 80% is surely a positive outcome. This stands comparison with other publicly funded London institutions where the non-continuation rate on similar courses can be up to 24.5%, according to government figures.

This school is working to establish statistical comparisons between private and public colleges on a like-for-like basis and benchmarks similar to those developed for public colleges by the Higher Education Funding Council. Without that information, comparisons such as the NAO’s of the performance of students on private HND courses with those on public undergraduate degree courses are like comparing apples to oranges.

NAO’s ‘drop-out rates’ are constructed from SLC data – they show full-time students who received for funding but withdrew without completing a full year of study. That is, their SLC payments were stopped at some point. It is not a measure of ‘non-completion’ as the Higher National Diploma, for example, is a two-year course. So if the drop-out rate is 20 per cent that does not mean 80 per cent complete the course of their studies. Completion, of course, is different again from passing.  NAO notes that nobody is monitoring completion or success rates for qualifications.
HESA’s ‘non-continuation’ rate is different again. It scores the number of students enrolled at the beginning who do not return for the start of year 2. This will be higher than the NAO drop-out rate, because it includes students who complete a full year of academic study but choose not to come back. For example, NAO has an average drop-out rate of 4 per cent for established universities, but a non-continuation rate of nearly 8 per cent. For mature students that rises to 12 per cent on average. As can be seen from the data, many of those who do not continue at a particular institution have transferred elsewhere.
Update 11 December 2014
It again conflates HESA’s non-continuation measure with NAO’s ‘drop-out rate’ but adds further confusion by suggesting that Student Loans Company data,
‘… treats as “dropouts” students whom the SLC initially mistakenly assessed as “eligible” for loan support and then, when correcting the mistake, treated as withdrawing from the institution named in the, sometimes fraudulent, application – even though the institution had not encouraged or endorsed the application and had never enrolled or even heard of the applicant.’
This may or may not be the case. However, this should not lead readers to conclude that the 2011/12 and 2012/13 drop out rates provided by NAO include the 5 500 students in 2013/14 who were found to have made ineligible maintenance applications to SLC. We do not yet have NAO drop-out rates for 2013/14: they are likely to be much worse.
It is also worth pointing out that Open University’s part-time students do not attract maintenance support in the same way as full-time HND students.
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