What does work in retention and success – evidence or experience? A personal view.

By Michael Hill, FACE Secretary and Action on Access Consultant

It was at the beginning of this academic year that the Social Market Foundation published “Staying the course: Student retention at English universities”. They did so in the knowledge that reports and analysis of non-continuation and retention rates will be part of universities’ TEF submissions and therefore of extreme and current interest.

Of course, for those concerned with social mobility in FE and HE, the retention, success and attainment of their students from non-traditional backgrounds has always been a key issue and many have attempted to influence the way universities have developed their retention strategies. I worry though that these strategies and their associated interventions have frequently not been informed by research – but rather by the assumptions and beliefs of senior staff based on their own experiences, which are generally far removed from the students for which they have a responsibility.

For that reason, I am hoping that the sector will be keen to hear about the report from the most recent phase of the What Works? Student retention and success change programme (WW-2) – a Paul Hamlyn Foundation programme working with the HEA and Action on Access. Their report will be published at a conference on 11th April 2017 and will describe findings from over four years of work with 13 UK universities across 43 discipline areas. The programme examined ‘what works’ in terms of retention and success and, crucially, developed understanding about how to implement change.

As one of the contextual evaluators of the programme, I am hopeful that the number of key messages that will be provided should enable universities and colleges to reflect on their current approaches and evaluate them in the light of this new evidence.

The key messages will include:

1. Understanding the local context. Before embarking on a programme of change, it is essential to understand the retention and success issues in relation to specific disciplines, courses and modules, student groups, characteristics, and to know when students leave and why.

2. Research-informed change across the lifecycle and student experience. The impact of interventions is increased when they are research-informed, take place across the student lifecycle and address the whole student experience. Both national and local evidence can be drawn upon to tailor a suitable programme of interventions, rather than rely on a single intervention.

3. Institutional enablers. Leadership, resources and support help ensure student engagement, belonging, retention and success are prioritised and valued within an institution. Academic staff cannot improve retention and success alone, and there needs to be a combination of bottom-up and top down approaches to support and enable change.

4. Monitoring and evaluating students’ engagement, belonging, retention and success. Monitoring and evaluation are key to success, and the learning must be acted upon.

5. Sustainability and organisational learning. Participating in WW-2 represented a significant investment on the part of institutions and individuals. But participating institutions identified numerous ways in which participating in WW-2 had been valuable to them, extending beyond the three years of operation.

6. Learning about the process of change. The programme was a natural experiment in how to implement change in large and complex organisations.
The evaluators explored different models and approaches, and collected information on people’s experiences as well as the effectiveness of different approaches.

The evaluators found that:

  • An extended change programme of at least three years is useful – in this case facilitated by the Higher Education Academy.
  • A cross-institutional team, with clear roles and operating at different levels within the institution is vital.
  • A model of working that allows ownership by discipline teams, but which provides support, especially overcoming institutional blocks, securing wider staff engagement and collaborative sharing and problem solving, is effective.
  • Student engagement in the process of change can be very beneficial.
  • Staff engagement is essential, but wider staff engagement can be a challenge until positive outcomes start to be witnessed.
  • Access to high quality data and undertaking evaluation were challenging priorities for most institutions.

The impact has been sustained through retaining and extending specific interventions, learning that had influenced wider institutional strategies and approaches and through the capacity of the staff who engaged in WW-2 and who are now working in additional ways to bring about improvements to the student experience within their institutions and beyond.

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