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Retaining students during Covid-19: responding to the challenges

23 Nov 2020 | John Fairhurst In advance of our Exceptional Student Retention webinar on 26 November, John Fairhurst considers the need to adapt support services to cope with Covid-19 and describes Bloomsbury Institute’s response to the challenge of ensuring students have ready access to the support they need.

Having spent 20 years in the public university sector before joining Bloomsbury Institute, it is clear in my mind that the challenge associated with student retention is not unique to an individual provider. However, the degree or scale of the challenge will differ. This differential may be reflected in how a provider responds to the challenge and the “retention actions” that it develops and implements.

It is well documented that some students are at an increased risk of disengaging from their studies and subsequently withdrawing. Providers that recruit larger numbers of “at risk” students will be very well attuned to the retention challenge, and will typically have been implementing well developed (and exceptional) “retention actions” for a number of years. I can recall from my days at the University of Huddersfield, going back over 15 years, when we first employed Academic Skills Tutors; their primary role was to support students who had been identified as “at risk” of attrition because of concerns with attendance or assessment. Nowadays, a number of providers use sophisticated predictive data analytics to identify “at risk” students to inform their interventions, and they also have comprehensive support services that they can offer to students.

However, these support services have typically been developed for on-campus students.

Covid-19 and student continuation

So how has Covid-19 impacted upon the retention challenge? Has it been greater, less or equal for those with a large number of “at risk” students? Professor Ruth Woodfield has stated in her blog that as a result of Covid-19 “we are all now pivoted towards retaining students and focused on meeting their enhanced needs as part of the retention effort”, or to put it another way, we are all in it together.

This can be supported by the fact that before the start of the current academic year, a number of providers stated they expected the drop-out rates for new students to increase. Why should that be? Is it because some or all of teaching had moved online? Is it because freshers could not socialise, make new friends and take advantage of the “whole HE experience”? Is it because students could not readily access support services? Or, is it due to a combination of these and other factors?

During Covid-19, a lot of debate time has quite rightly been given to the students’ direct teaching and learning experience, but less time has been given to what goes on outside of the classroom and how support services have been adapted to cope with Covid-19.

Here at Bloomsbury Institute, over 80% of our students enrol on a full-time 4-year degree with an integrated foundation year (accounting, business and law). Over 80% of our students join without a Level 3 qualification; over 80% are mature (average age mid-30s); and over 90% are from a low-income household (annual income £25k or less). We are situated in Central London, Zone 1, and all our students would be classed as “commuter students”.

The number of students who are assisted through our support services is high, and this assistance undoubtedly has a positive impact on student retention.

Responding to the challenge

Therefore, for us, the Covid-19 challenge was not just about how we moved to online teaching, it was also about how we adapted our support services to ensure students had easy and effective access during a period of high anxiety and uncertainty.

We established a Covid-19 Task Force and a Student Experience Working Group (that included Student Guild representation). Through this Task Force and Working Group we gave consideration to how we could adapt our support services for remote consumption.

We supported our staff to support our students, providing weekly online sessions for all staff (academic and professional services).

The following are examples of the adaptions we made to our support services in response to Covid-19:

  • During the summer we launched a Virtual Reception, which allowed students to hold a video call via Teams with members of our reception. This soon expanded across other services, including student wellbeing, finance, and student administration. While some students were content to communicate by email and telephone, this virtual service provided those students who were finding isolation difficult a “near to” real-life experience.
  • We are a great believer in peer support, and our Peer Assisted Learning (PAL) scheme was moved online. PAL Leaders were trained into how to run sessions via Teams. Take up by students increased.
  • In late 2019 we launched our own radio station, Bloomsbury Radio. Covid-19 was still a world away at the time, but once it arrived, the Radio provided us with a new medium through which we could communicate with and engage students. During the pandemic we have broadcast wellbeing sessions, employability events, our prize night, and student election results. Students have responded enthusiastically, and it has helped to maintain a sense of belonging.

It has not been possible to adapt all our support services, and it is probable that some students have been unable to access our services as they would prefer.

The retention challenge has clearly become more complex during Covid-19. The way in which we do things has changed. It has made us reimagine how we deliver our support services to make them more accessible, and this will put us in a better position for the retention challenge post-Covid-19.


John Fairhurst is Managing Director and Academic Principal, Bloomsbury Institute London. Having qualified and practised as a Solicitor of the Supreme Court of England and Wales, in 1993 he entered academia with the University of Huddersfield and has since held a range of positions including Head of Collaborative Provision at Huddersfield; Associate Dean (Faculty of Arts, Law and Social Science) at Anglia Ruskin University; and most recently Professor and Head of the School of Law at Birmingham City University before joining Bloomsbury in September 2012.


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.

We feel it is important for voices to be heard to stimulate debate and share good practice. Blogs on our website are the views of the author and don’t necessarily represent those of Advance HE.

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