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Exceptional student retention

03 Nov 2020 | Dr Joan O'Mahony Advance HE’s member benefit theme for November is student retention. Joan O’Mahony reflects on the challenges ahead, and outlines the focus of our forthcoming Exceptional Student Retention webinar on 26 November.

This month (November 2020), our member benefit theme at Advance HE is student retention. We will be reflecting on how to support and retain the Covid-19 and post Covid-19 cohorts in higher education (HE).  

Readers may wonder if the title Exceptional student retention is a little premature. For sure, these are exceptional times for students and staff, but how can we speak about exceptional student retention when we do not know how many of this year’s intake or the next will continue in HE past their first year?  

Whether continuation outcomes will be worse or better, exceptionally so or not, one thing that’s clear is that over the last few months the practice of student retention has been exceptional. Staff across the sector have risen to the challenge of providing support to students to help them make a good transition to university and college, to belong, to stay on, to do well. Too often, student retention is thought of as primarily an outcome, but it is also a practice, at the heart of which lies efforts at student inclusion. This involves reducing barriers to learning (disability barriers for example); the cultivation of a feeling of belongingness to a student’s subject and discipline; engagement, and nurturing the community in the classroom. Our webinar on 26 November is intended as a brief pause to collectively reflect on what we already do to support students, to share what new ideas we have, to think what we want to stop doing, what to continue doing, and what to start anew. 

Retention: outcomes and practice 

For many of us working in student retention, the idea of retention as a practice is key, the argument being that if practice is good, the outcomes logically follow: continuation, achievement and graduate- level employment. But paying attention to both practice and outcomes is vital, not only because positive outcomes are the consequence of good practice, but also because at times they are not. Good student outcomes do not necessarily imply good practice or a good student experience. Students often achieve despite weak provision, and students sometimes achieve against the odds and in the face of extraordinary challenges. In short, we need to talk more about student experience gaps, as much as any other gap, and to better balance the emphasis on student outcomes with a greater understanding of students’ lived experience in higher education, and of how this varies between student groups.  

This is not to detract from the importance of improving retention and progression outcomes. On the contrary, it is to argue that we are unlikely ever to close outcome gaps without paying greater attention to the disadvantages and inequalities that many students deal with throughout their time at university or college. The pandemic has shone a light on those existing inequalities that are still worsening, on, for example, unequal access to virtual and physical space, where some have no laptop, or no room or no space to study at home. Without greater collaboration in our competitive HE environments, and between the sector and government, it will be difficult to improve the life chances of this and the next cohort of students. 

Working in partnership for student retention: students, HEIs and community  

We already know that working collaboratively within our institutions – for example, student services and academic departments, timetabling and EDI, wellbeing and accommodation – achieve far more than when we work in silos. There are also opportunities created for student retention by cross-sector working. Midlands Credit Compass is a fine example: a framework created by the Midlands Enterprise Universities to help students at risk of withdrawal to transfer to another institution while maintaining a record of achievement. Another example is the initiative of the Greater London Authority to commission a report to better understand London’s higher rates of student withdrawal from the capital’s HEIs in comparison to other areas in England, and to provide recommendations.  

The last few months has also seen HEIs find new ways of communicating directly with students, new channels of communication that have opened up alongside the existing formal channels of the student representative system and the student union. Listening to students, their description of the problems and their advice or solutions is core to efforts to improve student retention. At our webinar on 26 November, we are especially interested to hear from delegates if they have changed how they communicate with students and whether they will continue to communicate in these new ways.  

An invitation 

Join Advance HE from 9.00-10:30 on Thursday 26 November to discuss student retention and the themes raised in this blog: student voices, disadvantage, belonging and community, and the question of regional and cross-HEI collaboration.  

I will be joined by a four-person panel: Sue Horder (Glyndŵr University) and John Fairhurst (Bloomsbury Institute London); both are providers with in-depth experience in supporting students from often exceptionally disadvantaged and under-represented backgrounds. Also joining the panel is Professor Ruth Woodfield from the University of St Andrews, whose work on the variation in student retention and attainment across the disciplines reminds us of the central role for subject specialists and disciplinary experts in supporting student success. Our final panel member is Aveek Bhattacharya, Chief Economist of the Social Market Foundation (SMF). The SMF’s report on regional variations in student retention is a reminder that HEIs on their own cannot provide all of the solutions.  

The role for delegates 

At the outset of the webinar, we will listen to Student Voices. This is a five minute film of first and second year students talking about being at university: what they like and what they would change. Delegates will be invited to respond to this film, and to say whether it prompts thoughts or ideas for improving student voices. After the panel presentations and discussion, we will open questions to the floor, and at the end of the webinar, I will ask delegates to share one example of something they are keen to start doing to enhance student retention. You may already have a clear idea of this, but we are also encouraging members this month to revisit and make use of Advance HE’s freely available resources, advice and guidance.  

We look forward to welcoming you to the discussion and learning more about student retention together. 

I will be inviting delegates to ask questions on the day, but if you wish to suggest a question in advance for the panel, enter it here.  

Joan O’Mahony is Senior Adviser (Teaching & Learning) at Advance HE, and previously Academic Lead for Student Retention at Higher Education Academy. She is co-author (2019) Understanding and overcoming the challenges of targeting students from under-represented and disadvantaged ethnic backgrounds for England’s Office for Students (OFS); co-author (2017) Supporting student success: strategies for institutional change: What Works? Student Retention & Success programme, London: Paul Hamlyn Foundation; and author (2014) of AHE’s Enhancing Student Learning and Teacher Development in Transnational Education.

Connect Member Benefit Series November: Exceptional student retention

Throughout November, our Connect Benefit Series focuses on the theme of ‘Exceptional student retention’. As part of the series, we will host a webinar on 26 November entitled ‘How to support and retain the Covid-19 generation in higher education’. The webinar is free to all colleagues at Advance HE member institutions.

Book your place here.

All outputs of November’s Exceptional student retention theme, along with related resources and services can be found here.

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