Stemming the exodus

21st September 2001 at 01:00
Neil Munro reports on how one college goes about bringing down student drop out rates

GLASGOW'S Cardonald College believes it has achieved "impressive" results in persuading students not to drop out of courses - but it also warns that paring teaching time to the bone in the name of "efficiency" will not help.

Last session the college ran a "steps to excellence" course for electronics students, designed to build confidence and positive thinking, and found that 96 per cent stuck with their programme, while only 56 per cent of a second group on the same full-time course did so.

Another move was to take staff and students on outdoor adventure trips to improve relations. Again, 88 per cent of students who took part remained on the course, compared with 57 per cent who did not.

Cardonald is one of a number of colleges that makes strenuous efforts to keep "bums on seats" since half of its students come from deprived areas - and 80 per cent of those are from the 5 per cent of the population labelled most deprived.

Some 18 per cent of student enrolments failed to stay the course last session. Every time a student from the 20 per cent most deprived postcode addresses drops out the college loses pound;45 from a special "entry premium" designed to widen access.

An analysis of 44,277 enrolments at Cardonald between 1993 and 1999 by Duncan McDougall, the college's division leader in technology, science and maths, as part of an MEd degree at Glasgow University, supports other research findings on wastage rates, the subject of a literature review published last week by the Scottish Council for Research in Education (see panel).

At Cardonald the biggest student losses were among 16-21s on full-time non-advanced courses, and from those living in the 20 per cent most deprived areas.

Mr McDougall, writing in the FE journal Broadcast, said he was "disappointed because many of the factors that influenced why students left were within the scope of the college" and "excited because I knew that we could actually do something about it".

One "absolutely critical" factor is good guidance on enrolment so students do not choose a course on the basis of "a glossy prospectus, a leaflet and an interview".

Most students dropped out when they discovered they chose the wrong course, and the college is now considering an extended induction period which will allow a taster of actual courses.

The Cardonald research also showed that students who drop out complain that they did not have enough time with their lecturers and Mr McDougall urges colleges not to make the "false economy" of trying to improve efficiency by reducing teaching time.

"The cost of replacing one hour of self-study on a non-advanced programme with tutored contact time for the whole class for the whole course year is recouped by increased income if you lose one less student from that course," he says. "It is simplistic to suggest that simply tutoring students with more of the same will improve retention rates."

Action should concentrate on improving the day-to-day experience for students. The result should be "a win, win situation - for students, for managers and for lecturers," he declares.

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