What is clear is that there is no silver bullet to solving the retention problem.
Instead, there are a myriad of solutions that can help universities to track, understand and intervene in a student’s journey.
How do you piece together the jigsaw that is student retention?
- Based on a deep understanding of the issues most pressing for your particular students.
- Piece by piece.
These points were made several times over at the Universities UK Retention event on 13th June.
Getting reliable data sets
First and foremost, universities need clear reliable data sets to base their interventions on, in addition to creating a culture where retention is a shared problem.
Everyone at a university should be accountable for retention, it should not simply be passed off to a student experience or support function. The most successful examples shared were those where the academic faculty worked closely alongside student support and student experience functions to support and guide students.
Shared responsibility is a particular focus at Sheffield Hallam University where every student has a ‘support triangle’ that combines an academic advisor, student support advisor and an employability advisor.
Sir Chris Husbands (VC at Sheffield Hallam) was keen to point out that progression should be for a purpose that needs to be made explicit i.e. it’s not simply about finishing the course, but understanding the wider goals of the Sheffield Hallam experience; an employability plan for each student, access to graduate opportunities, bespoke internships and work placements.
The VC also talked about some of the jigsaw pieces that Sheffield Hallam have yet to put into place; they like many others are struggling to support the growing number of commuter students.
How do you give commuter students that all important sense of belonging when the timing of social and support functions revolve around on-campus students?
Feedback from the Sheffield Hallam students union suggested they are facing similar problems engaging this student group in activities.
Online tutoring services
One part of the support jigsaw which is being increasingly utilised in universities is online tutoring services.
Christa Ehmann, VP of Smarthinking discussed the benefits of a 24/7 support service that fits around students’ timeframes.
Feedback has shown that students really value the anonymity that online tutoring provides, as it instantly removes the fear of ‘looking stupid’.
Another student benefit that came through strongly, was the ‘thinking time’ that online tutoring affords students; giving them time to analyse what they’ve heard in class before asking questions.
This has been found to be particularly helpful for international students who may need more time to cogitate lecture material before asking questions.
Christa was keen to emphasise that online tutoring is most effective where it has been bought in to solve a specific retention issue, often for a specific student cohort.
Similar to the other speakers throughout the day, Christa was clear that faculty buy in and collaboration between university staff is critical.
Christa Ehmann, Vice President & Chief Education Officer, Smarthinking, Pearson Education, speaks at Universities UK "Improving Student Retention" event in London on June 13, 2019.
Successful interventions at Solent University
We also heard from Alexandra Banks at Solent University about a proactive intervention service that is working effectively.
Alexandra was brought into Solent University with the primary remit of improving retention. 70% of their students are first generation university students and continuation numbers were a challenge.
There are 6 people on Alexandra’s achievement team and they actively initiate contact with students.
The interventions are data led, but also come from referrals from academics, who the team work closely with. Most students will be contacted at some point during their university experience, perhaps because their attendance rate drops off, or because the data suggests that they are struggling on a certain topic.
The university have been clear about pitching the achievement team as a tool to support students, not a way of reviewing academic staff performance. This has helped to increase collaboration and active participation in the scheme.
London South Bank University retention goals
Lastly, Shan Wareing, Deputy Vice Chancellor and Chief Operating Officer for London South Bank University told us about the unique make up of LSBU students and what that means for their retention challenge.
Currently around 50% of students leave with the award they expected to achieve and LSBU are determined to increase that figure and to retain more students along the way.
They have put the following measures and interventions in place to help:
- They recruit graduates for 1 yr internships (paying them £19k per annum) to call students with reduced engagement and better understand why they are struggling with the course.
- Where 1st year pass rates are below average, they review and if necessary redesign modules.
- They are about to make major changes to their assessments. LSBU receive 7000 extenuating circumstances submissions a year, creating a huge headache for academics and administrators, and raising questions about whether their method and timing of assessment is fit for purpose. By making the submission deadlines more flexible they hope to dramatically reduce the number of these types of submissions.
Progress on retention
Despite the widespread recognition that retention is not an issue that can be solved quickly or easily, this conference showed that universities are making significant progress.
And, despite the current competitive climate, they remain deeply collaborative and keen to learn from each other.