‘To learn or not to learn?’

Successive governments have attempted to set performance indicators that focus on graduates obtaining employment within 6 months of graduating. Also targets have been established over the past few decades for monitoring staying on and participation rates for 16 to 19 year olds. It might be useful to consider in more depth issues associated with student retention, achievement as well as some of the wider reasons of people who do not participate in education and training.

This is particularly important at a time of recession and high unemployment especially for young people currently at 22% (1st quarter of 2012). These issues are particularly important in technical and vocational courses/programmes that often attract fewer students. Student retention and achievement rates justifiably continue to be an important issue for colleges, training providers and universities. Obviously, colleges and universities wish to see all their students succeed and have value added to them through their studies and the associated learning opportunities and experiences afforded to them by their institutions.

The institutions are acutely aware how important retention and achievement data is in the determination of high institutional inspection grades, but concerns still persist regarding the validity, reliability and probity of the data and the process associated with the interpretation by inspectors and assessors for a particular institution. These concerns persist even with the introduction of nationally validated benchmarking data and the greater opportunities afforded by self-assessment reports.

**These allow colleges to articulate their own assessment of their performance in terms of retention and achievement drawing attention to contextual mitigating factors, reflecting their mission and recognising more accurately the nature of their student populations. Any identification or exploration of these concerns brings into play many key higher and further education issues. Each key issue (retention, achievement and non-participation) is inter-related to the other but for the purposes of clarification, here they will be considered separately.

There is no one major determining factor which causes a student to leave a course, and as such retention is a complex and multidimensional issue. There are many factors that may lead to withdrawal from a course/programme. The recent changes and in some cases the removal of benefits, grants and discretionary awards means some students are unable to continue their studies. Financial difficulties figure significantly in student withdrawal and drop-out. Students often carry inherited debts throughout their studies and a time comes when they can no longer afford to stay at college or university. Many attempt to obtain part-time work but find it increasingly difficult to balance the commitment that requires with the need for effective learning practices. Any member of an Access Fund Panel realises what very great sacrifices students of all ages are now making to return to study. Sadly, increasing numbers of students just cannot continue to accumulate further debt. Furthermore, the recent significant changes in higher education tuition fees can only serve to fully exacerbate the situation. Despite constant debate surrounding this, little recognition has been applied to the position of post-16 students, mainly in colleges of further education. The majority already has major debt, which will be continued and considerably increased by higher education studies.

The domestic situation of a student can change considerably and suddenly, often leading to a withdrawal from studies. Cultural and social pressures combined with seemingly all-important materialism can lead to complex and subtle forms of peer pressure. Many students find it increasingly difficult, especially if they are struggling financially, to maintain a supposed lifestyle that is extolled by the media and often by their employed friends. The pressures have increased in complexity over recent decades, particularly when considering younger students.

Some students manage to find employment and leave a course. Given the volatile and uncertain world of employment, one cannot blame them. Perhaps colleges and universities should celebrate the fact that their students have found work, whilst also studying. Hopefully those jobs will be secure and offer opportunities for further study and training and often the students will return to the colleges or universities to continue their studies whilst in employment. The existing uncertainties in the world of work and employment surely provide validation for resorting to work at times rather than study on the part of many students.

Another consideration regarding the dropout rate has to be the course itself. The wrong choice of course possibly arises from poor and inadequate guidance, advice and information, whether at school or from early contact with the institution. Honest broker and objective guidance is central to any institution’s recruiting activity. That guidance must not solely be of the highest order at entry but must continue during the on-programme study. If students realise they are on the wrong course then they should be offered honest and open guidance to alternatives, not only within the institution but also at other institutions. The learner must be the central priority and must not be subverted by institutional priorities. If inadequate support is given students will inevitably leave. This leaves a possibility of them feeling that their interests have not been well served by education institutions and could deter them from considering to return to study later. Finally the course must be fit for purpose for the learner’s purpose, more fully prepare them for employment and give them confidence that if a technical and vocational course is their choice it possess a parity of esteem with the academic courses at the same level.

Colleges and universities must do all they can to make certain that they improve their retention rate, primarily through continued support and guidance of their students. Equally, however, they must realise that many students will withdraw for reasons well beyond their control. Sadly, due to financial pressures, students will seek employment or feel that they cannot sustain useful study while carrying such large debts. The uncertainty of gaining future employment must also have an impact, so colleges and universities must understand and respect the reasons for students’ withdrawal. This involves careful consideration and management of these issues along with great care in articulation regarding self-assessment reports.

Unfortunately the media often pick up detail from league tables and refer to them as ‘flunk factors’ but this is too simplistic. They do not tell the true story. Behind every student withdrawal there lies a whole series of reasons. It is important that institutions understand that, but equally important that the members of the public do not read too much into these simplistic league tables. Moreover, politicians must not begin to introduce simplistic knee-jerk and punitive measures against institutions that, at face value, do not have high retention rates (see ** paragraph marked above). Institutions must be allowed opportunities to explain why the retention rates have reached their current levels. Improvements can be made, but there needs to be a realistic view taken that very often the determining factors for withdrawal are beyond the control of the institutions and also beyond the control of the individual students.

League tables abound for achievement and obviously colleges and universities want to see all their students succeed. However, many achievement issues are not picked up by the very narrow definition of achievement often used by the inspectors. The model continues to be very traditional. It is centred on full awards, time served ‘courses’ and there is an expectation that a student, once enrolled, will complete the qualification. Therefore, even accepting that a number of students will withdraw for the reasons given above, there are also complications about whether they will achieve any sort of recognition for the parts they have studied.

Increasingly many students wish to take part awards, often supported by their sponsors/employers. They do not wish to do a full award but pursue various parts of a programme of study, achieving a number of modules or units. The current way of recognising achievement most certainly does not fully recognise these transformations in student and sponsor expectation. For many reasons, often prominently financial, the employer may want to sponsor just a number of aspects of a particular programme of study. With increasing frequency, the learner of the future will enter study and leave and then return later and wish to see an accumulation of recognition of their achievements. They may not always want access to study on only time-served full awards and qualifications.

Very often colleges are heavily criticised for apparently low achievement rates when, within a certain programme of study, many of the students have gained significant proportions of that award. It truly is time for the funding methodology to recognise this change and most certainly for the inspectors to recognise part-achievement. This is not a reflection of failure by the student and/or the institution. It merely reflects the changing nature of demand from the student and also from their employer: demand which may be attributable to financial limitations on how large a chuck of study a student can afford to pay for at any time and/or the amount of time a student can spare for study alongside earning a living.
Increasingly, many programmes of study involve a great deal of work place learning and assessment e.g. engineering and construction studies. In this situation the student’s programme is experienced through a partnership between the college and the employer. Different parts of the learning and assessment will take place in either the college or the work place. This development is to be welcomed because it brings increasing authenticity to both the employer’s and the institution’s role. However too often the inspection framework only recognises achievement within the college. This narrow approach surely requires review and reform. This is a particularly important issue when considering apprenticeships and courses that offer significant work experience elements.

Again, the current situation reflects a very traditional model of teaching and learning matched also by the increasing obsession with time-served qualifications and awards. This is becoming increasingly difficult to justify, not only to learners but also to employers. Provision has to be more flexible, responsive and relevant and be available in small bites that will be funded and recognised as achievement even though it is part-achievement. When that learning and achievement is also embedded in sustained work place practice it has a validity which other context-less qualifications cannot ever contemporaneously demonstrate.

Another interesting aspect relates to the students who leave to get work. As mentioned earlier, the inspectors and assessors see this as the institution’s failure. This raises some very interesting issues about how to recognise achievement. If the student, for example, is studying a full-time course and is offered a job and leaves, they could then be sponsored by their employer to return to the same institution but to study for a part-time equivalent course. When the inspectors examine retention and achievement data they will not accept that a large number of the students on some programmes of study where employment prospects are buoyant have indeed succeeded. They have secured a job. This is possibly the ultimate indicator of success, but the colleges and universities are increasingly being criticised for apparently losing their students and not bringing them to a successful conclusion of their course. It really is quite a bizarre contradiction. Statistical data needs to be more refined to track student progressions and destinations.

It clearly is important that a fundamental review is taken of the notion of students’ success. Because of the recession uncertainties now exist within society and the increasing financial difficulties that students find themselves exposed to, they will increasingly return to study part-time or in flexible ways dictated by their own circumstances. The funding and inspection models operated must more fully recognise this changing pattern of part-award and a more extended period of study, albeit on an interrupted basis.

The current obsession with traditional qualifications and awards needs to be questioned. The accelerating knowledge and skill base demanded by world economic and technological developments raises questions about the validity of time served programmes of study. They are very often dated by the time the students complete and graduate from them. Consequently, employers may not see them as relevant to their needs.

Non Participating Individuals often referred to as Not in Employment, Education or Training (NEETS)
Inclusive learning and an inclusive society are currently highly publicised. Colleges have, for decades, played a major part in offering second chance opportunities to people and encouraging those who have not traditionally studied. They have a long and credible track record, only partly recognised by successive governments. The FE sector and its constituent colleges are committed to playing a major part in any government’s priorities for widening participation and inclusive learning. However, a degree of realism needs to be injected into the debate. Lifelong learning assumes that all people want to learn. This needs to be carefully analysed. There are many people who had opportunities in the past who have not taken up those opportunities for all kinds of reasons. They have their own lifestyle, they have a view about education and training or they possibly had bad experiences at school. Perhaps they feel their success in work and life does not merit them thinking of returning to study. Sadly, there are many for whom exclusion through disadvantage has been constant, but again one needs to think carefully about whether they are ‘thirsting’ to return to study. They need to be encouraged to return to study but it begs questions concerning what is on offer. If it is traditional provision it will not work. The existing curriculum offer needs to be urgently reformed with a wider range of courses particularly in the technical, commercial and vocational areas. For it to succeed people need to view it as relevant to their lives and work chances and recognise that it adds value to their existence (in these cases it may not be related to formal qualifications.) Again, these points reflect the concern that is prominent regarding the obsession with qualifications and their associated standards.

For lifelong learning to be successful, it has to be enjoyable, it has to be attractive and it has to add value to people’s lives. It must not focus solely on studying for a qualification – especially when job opportunities are limited or may not be available at this time of recession and austerity. There have to be measures that both prompt a return to study and also overcome the barriers that deter people from doing so.

First version of this article published in March 1999 in ‘t’ magazine.

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