Written by Catherine Turner, and Dan Salamons from IFF’s Higher Education team

The university challenge: student retention in a Covid world

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An impending exodus?

The media is currently awash with stories about university students at the end of their tether. As discussed in a recent article in The Guardian ‘Broken and defeated’: UK university students on the impact of Covid rules, students face a delayed ‘return’ to university while still expected to pay full tuition fees and rents for accommodation. Some report their mental health to be at the lowest it’s ever been, with access to wellbeing services simultaneously difficult.

Some students have already decided not to return to university, at the very least until we are through the worst of the pandemic and social restrictions ease. While others will have made this a permanent decision – not to return at all.

This will lead to justifiable concern among universities about levels of non-continuation and the impact for them reputationally and financially.  While there is no hard evidence to show that non-continuation rates have risen, there is certainly anecdotal evidence to suggest otherwise. And all the time there is no clear and consistent approach to measuring non-continuation, such as how many days after starting a course a student ‘drops out’, we won’t be any the wiser on the true impact of Covid this academic year.

Evidently, there is a clear and real need to better understand the issues facing students stood at a crossroads in the first year of their university experience. As well as those currently completing their A-level and equivalent studies, who have endured a particularly turbulent year and may already feel anxious about how their university experience will play out.

A new challenge: the loss of traditional touchpoints

To make matters worse, the swift move to online learning necessitated by the pandemic has changed the way universities collect data used to highlight factors that lead to non-continuation. Many of the traditional data touchpoints used to spot potential flags for student drop out, such as card tap-ins on campus, library book loans or attendance in lectures and seminars are no longer available. Whilst online attendance can still technically be measured, it is now much easier for students to ‘log-in and check out’. As a result, universities have less data to inform them which students have already dropped out, who are close to doing so and what they need to do in terms of student engagement to boost continuation.

As David Kernohan quite rightly pointed out in his article Fifty days to leave your uni? a student’s decision to stop their learning doesn’t just happen overnight, but is best understood as a ‘gradual disengagement’.

‘A student may stop attending lectures first of all, or find themselves unable to continue to support themselves financially, or find themselves with other responsibilities and other constraints that stop them being able to participate.’

Untangling and understanding the complexity of this disengagement process is therefore key and will help universities provide suitable interventions and support to students at different points along this journey.

Getting under the skin of the issue

With lockdown 3.0 in full force, the virtual reopening of universities and the potential for face-to-face learning pushed ever later, student needs are changing rapidly. Making the risk of non-continuation worryingly high. Especially, if these needs are not successfully tracked and addressed in both proactive and reactive engagement strategies with different groups of students.

Universities need to identify those at risk before it’s too late. And, in doing so, collect crucial insight on what provision should look like next year and beyond.

When discussing solutions for universities looking to maximise retention, a recent report from HEPI made the point that while “we know the characteristics of students who are more likely not to complete…we do not always understand which factors are the key ones in raising their non-continuation rates.” This crucial insight on how universities can improve experience, where to focus efforts and why this matters most is only available through deep-dive qualitative research techniques.

Harness the power of online communities

Qualitative research options such as depth interviews and focus groups can shine a light on student experience and needs, especially if you require quick feedback to guide immediate decision making and provision of support. However, as the elements that lead to positive experience and continuation are often social, universities should be looking to facilitate student social interactions during their data collection – both for reliable insight and to replace the physical communities that have become disconnected. One way to do this is through the use of online communities.

In a current large scale study for government we’re using currently online communities to understand the complex interplay of influences that shape student behaviours during the pandemic. These communities enable you to observe behaviours and their context immersively over a period of time to really understand what drives different behavioural responses to the pandemic. For instance, by briefing students on things to observe and comment on, in terms of the behaviours of their peers or influences in their environment. This extended data collection period also allows you to establish rapport in a safe environment, increasingly the likelihood of open and honest feedback.

Critically though, with the speed of change with Covid guidelines, the real appeal of online communities for universities in the current climate is the access to real-time insight. With the opportunity to engage with students, or prospective students over time, you can pose questions, test ideas and engage more naturally and frequently than other methodologies allow.

Life after Covid

It’s hard to predict how far reaching or long-lasting impact the impact of Covid will be for students or universities. Even when there is a widespread return to campuses, the move to online learning during the pandemic is likely to see a rise in appeal of online courses in the future. With universities seeking to strengthen their online learning offers in both the short and long-term, retention and related student engagement strategies appear to be in on the agenda for quite some time to come.