Duty, Dennis J. (2006) From Non-Traditional to Individual: looking beyond the stereotypes by developing a systematic approach to first year retention and progression. In: Student Retention, Progression and Social Inclusion, 1st - 2nd September 2006, Bath Spa Univiserty. (Unpublished)

In the current climate of increasingly competitive, marketised higher education, many institutions have placed retention and progression high on their agenda. Student withdrawal is not only financially costly for all involved, but also adversely affects admissions targets and causes students undue stress and anxiety.

Many authors have identified higher than average drop-out rates amongst so-called ‘non-traditional’ students who now often represent the majority in those mainly post-1992 institutions that focus strongly in this area. In an attempt to understand and cope with this issue researchers have attempted to classify both the students and the reasons that may cause them to leave higher education (HE). The picture is one of extreme diversity and complexity, with a range of views about the main cause of withdrawal and therefore about potential solutions for overcoming it, many suggesting that we must somehow help the student to adapt to the unfamiliar university environment.

Given the current context of increased national student participation levels and widening participation this approach alone is perhaps insufficient. Universities that are serious about addressing retention and progression must become more customer-focused; instead of trying to adapt students to fit HE, it is they that must adapt to fit the needs all including the new, majority, ‘non-traditional’ students.

This paper presents a case study of a new university with high levels of non-traditional students and on-going retention and progression issues. We provide an example of how realigning key processes in relation to teaching, learning and student support with identified student needs can improve retention and progression. We specifically address the need for sensitivity to individual requirements, managed through flexibility and the integration of information systems with a customer-focused mind-set. For the future, a holistic approach is recommended which focuses on changing the university environment – both structurally and culturally – to meet the needs of all our students and to help them thrive, whatever their circumstances.

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