A Special Issue of the journal Widening Participation and Lifelong Learning has been published, focussing on Student Retention and Success, which draws on a selection of the papers given at last year’s ‘What works? Student Retention and Success’ conference.

This Special Issue has been published as an open access resource, so please circulate widely to colleagues.

Articles in the issue deal with a number of issues key to Retention and Success around social networking, mentoring, foundation years, student support and adult learners.

Click here to read the Special Issue

The Special Issue was edited by Jane Andrews (Aston University) and Liz Thomas (Edgehill University and Higher Education Academy).

To accompany the publication of the Special Issue, we are pleased to present an exclusive review of the Final Report from the What Works? Student Retention and Success Programme. Read on!

Publication Review: Building Student Engagement and Belonging in Higher Education at a Time of Change: Final report from the What Works? Student Retention & Success Programme

Reviewed by Janice M. Allan, University of Salford, UK

The publication of the final report of What Works? programme is nothing if not timely. As we watch the consequences of changes to the funding model unfold, the higher education sector looks set to face a challenging and uncertain future. Speculating about the effects of higher fees on students’ expectations and engagement, the report opens by sounding a note of caution about students transformed into ever more savvy consumers, demanding value for their money. Offering unprecedented access to a range of quality indicators, the introduction of Key Information Sets will undoubtedly play a role in empowering the student-as-consumer to make an informed choice about where to study. And yet, the knock-on effects of the funding changes – the need to combine work with study, to remain at home or to defer university entry – will inevitably affect students’ ability to engage and succeed once registered. While it is, as yet, difficult to do more than speculate about the medium to long-term effects of  higher fees, their most immediate and obvious impact can already be felt. According to the latest UCAS report, UK and EU domiciled acceptances are down by 12% from the equivalent point in the previous cycle. Within England, where the effects of the funding reforms are most pronounced, this figure rises to 14% and it is likely that the impact on mature students will be even greater.  With many universities failing to meet their recruitment targets and forced to downgrade their entry tariffs, it is more important than ever that we retain and support the students that we get. It is for this reason that the What Works? Report will be welcomed throughout the sector.

What distinguishes the What Works? programme from much of the existing research on student retention and achievement is that it represents an attempt to translate theory into practice. Responding to the findings of the 2008 Public Accounts Committee – that a significant barrier to attempts to improve student retention and completion is a lack of evidence about what actually works – the programme was conceived and designed ‘to generate evidence-based analysis and evaluation about the most effective practices to ensure high continuation and completion rates’ (p.8). Launched by the Paul Hamlyn Foundation and co-funded by HEFCE, the £1 million pound programme involved 7 projects across 22 HE institutions. The final report, authored by Professor Liz Thomas, the Programme Director and Academic Lead for Retention and Success at the HEA, summarises the key findings of the individual projects and explores their practical and strategic implications. Building on the lessons learned through each of the projects, it presents ‘the What Works? model’ and ‘What Works approach’ to improving student retention and success.

In its organisation and presentation, the report is designed to be put to use by a variety of interested parties from individual course leaders, to those involved in the delivery of professional services, to strategic management teams. Following a contextual discussion and explanation of the What Works? model (more of which below), the main body of the report is organised around six key topics: pre-entry and induction; learning and teaching; friendship and peer support; participation and belonging; the use of data to enhance the student experience; and strategic change. Drawing on the evidence from the individual projects as well as an international body of research, Thomas begins each section with an overview of the key issues before presenting a range of case studies, together with a brief quantitative and qualitative analysis of their effectiveness.

The most valuable of the case studies are those that can be easily adapted for different disciplines and institutions. For example, one of the learning and teaching case studies, taken from the Department of Tourism, Hospitality and Events at the University of Sunderland, describes how sending first-year students on a local fact-finding fieldtrip during induction helps to establish peer relations and bolster cohort identity. Given, however, that the value of this exercise derives less from what students are sent out to do than from the fact that they are sent out to do it together, the practice lends itself to endless adaptation: fine art students can be sent out to sketch the local environment, architect students to reflect upon key buildings and geology students to trace the effects of erosion on the local environment. Furthermore, as an activity that can be organised by a single individual or small course team with a minimum of expenditure, it is a good example of how the report empowers practitioners to make small changes that can make a real difference to their students. Less satisfying are those studies, such as the creation of the Sandbox Studio, a course-specific social space, again at the University of Sutherland, which are difficult to emulate. While no one is likely to question the value of such spaces in facilitating peer bonding and support, their creation relies on a significant financial investment that many departments, especially in the current climate, are not in a position to make.

Given that the primary purpose of the What Works? programme was ‘to generate evidence-based analysis and evaluation’ (p. 8), the nature of this evidence must itself come under scrutiny. The institutions involved ranged from Russell Group institutions to new universities, with a number of red bricks in between; the so-called ‘squeezed middle’ featuring prominently. We can, therefore, safely assume that the evidence base included students of diverse ability and backgrounds. Turning to the projects themselves, it is worth noting that, while all were designed to improve student retention and engagement, they differ widely in scope and methodology (although all but one involved student surveys). Project 4, for example, an analysis of the effectiveness of the Effective Lifelong Learning Inventory at Northumbria, was based on 2,737 student profiles while Project 7, Sunderland’s study of the effects of integration on retention, relied on 142 student surveys. Given that the fourth stage of this latter project, a postal survey, elicited a mere 32 responses, the validity and representativeness of their findings are open to challenge. Furthermore, and as the report itself acknowledges, the multiple factors affecting a student’s decision to stay or leave make it impossible to establish a clear and unambiguous correlation between a particular intervention and improved retention.  When, however, one looks at the outcomes of the projects as a collective body of evidence and recognises that, despite the differences in scale and approach, they reach a mutually-enforcing conclusion – a conclusion supported, moreover, by existing research – the report can be said to have fulfilled its stated purpose.

The report’s conclusion is expressed as follows:

The evidence from across the seven What Works? projects firmly points to the importance of students having a strong sense of belonging in HE, which is the result of engagement, and that this is most effectively nurtured through mainstream activities with an overt academic purpose that all students participate in. (p. 12)

Like many of the best ideas, once articulated, it seems self-evident but its import is wide-reaching, especially when articulated in the form of the What Works? model. In essence, this model ‘puts student engagement and belonging at the heart of improving student retention and success’ (p. 16) and is based on the following four principles: early engagement (beginning at the pre-entry stage and continuing throughout the student’s lifecycle); engagement within the academic sphere; developing the capacity of staff and students to engage; and institutional management and co-ordination. Although, elsewhere, the report refers to activities to improve retention and engagement as ‘interventions’ – suggesting action taken from without – the appeal of the What Works? model is that these activities are, precisely, embedded and mainstreamed and thus preventative rather than corrective. Given the programme’s findings that between 33% and 42% of first-year students consider withdrawing (p. 12), this type of opt-out, rather than opt-in approach has the advantage of not only supporting those that haven’t been identified as being at risk, but also of avoiding the stigma associated with targeted remedial actions.

The challenge, however, lies in the fact that this proactive, inclusive model relies on the involvement of all staff but, in a climate where an increasing number of demands are being made on academics within institutions that continue to privilege research outputs over teaching and learning or student-focused activities, it is by no means likely that this additional responsibility will be welcomed, even by those who recognise that retention will play a key role in safeguarding the financial future of their institution. In response, one can only hope that Thomas’s report is receiving full and careful consideration by those with the power to shape and direct institutional priorities and policies, not only to recognise and reward those working to retain and engage their students but to support such efforts through effective monitoring systems and appropriate staff and development.

While offering a convincing synthesis of the programme and its outcomes, the final report is not a stand-alone document. Indeed those hoping to learn from it should read it in conjunction, not only with the associated Compendium of Effective Practice in Higher Education and individual project reports (all available on http://www.heacademy.ac.uk/what-works-retention) but also with Thomas’s earlier analysis of the importance of institutional habitas in addressing student retention (2002). If the What Works? programme focuses on how to make the changes necessary to improve student retention and engagement, Thomas’s article offers a cogent case for why such changes need to be made. Nor, despite its title, is this report the final outcome of the programme. Building on its findings, the HEA’s Retention and Success change programme is currently considering bids for 15 further institutional projects to implement and evaluate change designed to enhance student retention and success. And thus, far from constituting a conclusion or end point, it offers a way forward in an uncertain future.


‘Interim assessment of UCAS acceptances by intended entry year, country of institution and qualifications held’, 20 September 2012. http://www.ucas.ac.uk/about_us/media_enquiries/media_releases/2012/20121409. (Accessed 24 October 2012).

Thomas, L. (2002) ‘Student Retention in Higher Education: the role of institutional habitas’, Journal of Education Policy, 17,4: 423-32.

Share →

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *