Is being a drop-out par for the course?

For the thousand ormore nervous first years who recently moved into Legoland blocks on the treelined Heriot Watt University campus west of Edinburgh, it is a hopeful time. As with the half of all young Scots who now go on to higher education, they are setting out on what they expect will be the start of a bright future.

But a young man tending the bar at Geordie's in the student union could tell a sorrier tale.

Kevin Hazlehurst is one of more than 10per cent of students who drop out of Scotland’s universities without having completed their course. He now has GBP9000 in debts and no qualification to show for it.

“I’m staying positive, ” says the 20-yearold who now dreams of becoming an airline pilot – if he can get a job that will let him pay off his debts.”I’ve made some good friends and I learned quite a lot.”

Looking back, Kevin feels he got off to a bad start. His parents, who did not attend university after school, wanted him to go to a local institution and live at home. The course he chose, combined studies, was also a mistake, he says: “It’s just regarded as bits and pieces of other

Although the university provided him with an academic mentor, Kevin found the complex system difficult to navigate. He tried to change course but had to acquire more credits. During second year his debts started to mount, with maximum student loans plus an overdraft of GBP1500 and two credit cards each owing GBP500.

“I’m from England, so I had to pay GBP1200 in fees for the next year, and I just didn’t have it, ” he says. “The loan I could get would just about cover my accommodation costs but that would be all.”The last strawwas to get a report which listed him as absent for an exam he says he sat.

Kevin decided to take his parents’ advice, cut his losses and move home.

Soon he will be returning to Liverpool.

AHeriot Watt spokeswoman insists the university has a detailed system of support for students who are struggling, whether financially or otherwise:”We are sorry to hear of any students who have dropped out, particularly if they’re unhappy with their experience, ” she says.

“It is not clearwhether this student made use of these [services]. We always look to see if any further lessons can be learned.”

But Kevin’s is just one story behind a trend. Scotland’s drop-out rate is up 1per cent in a year to 11per cent – above the UK average.

Three Scottish universities have drop-out rates of more than 20per cent, significantly higher than any English university.

These three, Abertay, Paisley and Napier, are also among the most socially inclusive, a fact they point to in their defence. While only 38per cent of English school leavers go on to higher education, half in Scotland do.

However, Peter Strike, vice principal of Napier, says: “The figures are higher than we’d like. A lot of effort is going into understanding why. Financial pressures appear to be the biggest factor.”Many drop out to take up jobs, he adds.

But Donna McArthur, a nursing student at Napier and mother of three, says that while she is out of pocket every month on childcare, that is not the only problem.

“This year I got my timetable, arranged all my childcare, and then 12 days before term started I got an e-mail advising of additional classes. I had to rearrange my childcare and it ended up costing me more, ” she said. “I don’t really think it is acceptable to give us such short notice. If you are a parent you need to be organised a long time in advance.

“A student on my course dropped out last year. She had a special needs child and didn’t drive. She lived in Midlothian and was told to do a placement that involved her being in West Lothian at 7am every morning to work eight-hour shifts unpaid.

She just couldn’t do it.”

NickCurrie, who teaches at the University of Central Lancashire, believes pressures on students from poorer areas can be immense: “I have already had someone come and see me today who said the lecture for her course module is at five and her childcare finishes at 4.30, so the only way she can attend is if she can bring her six-year-old son to the lectures. That
happens quite a bit, actually.”

Morag Henderson, a single parent of two, has found life hard at the University of Edinburgh, which has the lowest level of social inclusion in Scotland.She says:

“Edinburgh has a low drop-out rate because the vast majority of students here are middle-class 18-year-olds who get a lot of support from home.”Morag after completing an access course and three years of an archaeology degree is now on the brink of dropping out.

“It has all been so much harder than it needed to be, ” she says. She cites the example of having to be in class on Easter Monday and a regular clash of holidays.

“Some of the courses have also been disappointing. Some of the staff are good but I went to one class where not many people had turned up and the tutor said: ‘Great, that means less work for me. it would be nice to feel they were enthusiastic about teaching – after all, we are making a huge investment.”

The final straw for Morag, who is dyslexic, was a prospect of learning to use voice-recognition software instead of having her final paper transcribed: “I’ve enough on my plate and I don’t want to do a year’s work and fail the exam.”

A university spokeswoman said: “We can’t comment on an individual case but we do try to meet students’ individual needs as far as we can an we have a very strong disabilities unit.”

Back at Heriot Watt, planning director Richard McGookin says that despite Kevin’s experience, Heriot Watt’s belowaverage drop-out rate had actually bucked the national trend by falling a percentage point in a year: “We realised a few years ago that with increasing volumes of students this was going to be a problem and commissioned some research.

“There appears to be a number of factors. Certain courses and modules are more liable, such as engineering, where there is a heavy workload and people haven’t studied the subject at school, so they don’t know quite what to expect. We therefore look very carefully at courses which have a high drop-out rate to see if there are teaching problems, and we try to make sure that the students know what they are getting into.

“Those with marginal qualifications, people who have just scraped into the course, are more vulnerable. The level of integration and involvement in the university also appears to be a factor. If they live at home, instead of on campus, there can be a long commute and that may make it harder to attend lectures on a cold wintermorning. But if they are not turning up
they are at risk and their academic monitor should pick that up.

“People from non-traditional university backgrounds are more at risk and we try to provide advice and support. Mature students are also more at risk. They have other pressures, and may have non-standard qualifications and not fit into the class in the usual way.”

The student union houses a drop-in welfare and advice clinic, but according to McGookin: “The students are here to study and we try to make sure the courses we offer live up to their expectations. The thing that’s changed in howwe do that is the increasing involvement of students themselves. At the end of every module they get a feedback form to assess
the teaching and content.

Each class has a representative who attends a faculty committee to give feedback. Every member of staff appointed in the last five years has a teaching qualification.”

However, far from being downbeat about dropouts, Robin McAlpine, spokesman
for Universities Scotland, argues the fact that the figures aren’t higher should be seen as a resounding success:

“This is actually a fantastic success story for Scotland. We have been hugely successful at widening access and we are doing pretty well at retention.”

“We’ve now got about 40per cent of Scots getting a degree. We are about second or third in the world on that. For a mass education system, our drop-out rate is also one of the best in the world. Japan has a lower drop-out rate, but that is still an elite system.

“In America the drop-out rate is more than half, although they don’t care because students pay their own way there. But we can’t be complacent, because behind every statistic is a story, and we have a responsibility to make sure everything is done that can be done to enable people to complete their courses.”


The Scottish Herald
11th October 2005