“Lowest drop-out rate” figure challenged by new stats

Anna Carruthers 12 February 2015

An investigation by The Cambridge Student has revealed that the nationally comparable figures which Cambridge University use to claim that they have one of the "lowest drop-out rates" in the country do not include many students who intermit and then do not return. Significant variation in intermission across colleges was also revealed, with exceptionally high rates of intermission in colleges for mature undergraduates.

The figures indicated that the official Higher Education Statistics Agency (HESA) dropout rate – which is cited on the Student Welfare page of Cambridge University’s website as “amongst the lowest … in the country” – does not include many of those students who intermit but then do not return to finish their studies, a stance adopted as a result of the specifications of HESA.

The process of intermission, which was previously known as degrading, allows students to take time out of their degree – usually a whole academic year – and return at a later date. This is normally granted for medical reasons.

Omission of non-returning intermitting students from HESA statistics

A total of 947 undergraduate students have intermitted in the three academic years since 2011/2012, amounting to an average of 2.7% of all undergraduates during this period. Of these, 227 (24%) did not return to finish their studies. However, it appears that many of these students who did not return to Cambridge after intermitting are not included in the data provided by the university to HESA, which is used to calculate continuation rates across all Universities.

For the academic year 2011/12, HESA presents Cambridge’s dropout rate as a total of 45 students, yet data provided by the University following an FOI request indicates that 83 students in that year intermitted and did not then return to finish their studies. When contacted, the University stated that the discrepancy is “to be expected” as “the population reported to the HESA website differs considerably to the population of students for which we provided the FOI data.” For example, students not included in the HESA data include dormant students (those who have stopped studying but are yet to formally leave their course), non-UK domiciled students and Guernsey, Jersey and Isle of Man domiciled students.

Significant variation in college intermission numbers

The statistics which were obtained by TCS also revealed substantial disparities in the breakdown of the number of undergraduate students intermitting per college. Girton has seen the highest number of students intermit, with 63 students having intermitted in the three academic years since 2011/12, 4.18% per annum as a proportion of the student body. Homerton (55 students and 2.91%), Trinity (52 and 2.49%), and St John’s (51 and 3.13%) also had high numbers of intermission during this time period.

At the other end of the scale was Corpus Christi College, from where only 14 undergraduates have intermitted in the past three years (2.09% average degrading per annum). Similarly low numbers intermitted from Trinity Hall (15 and 1.31%), and Selwyn College (19 and 1.88%).

Speaking to TCS, the mental health charity Student Minds Cambridge (SMC) said this “highlights the ongoing problem of a disparate welfare system across Cambridge. More should be done to ensure that each college has the same baseline of welfare support available for students … When it comes to something as fundamentally important as mental health welfare, there should be consistency across all colleges, so that every student has sufficient support to enable them to complete their studies.”

CUSU’s Welfare officer Jack Wright, however, argued that a high intermission rate is not indicative of a poor college welfare system, since: “A student who feels they need to intermit and has their decision supported is far better off than someone being pressured to keep working against their best interests.”

High levels of intermission at mature colleges

The high levels of intermission among undergraduate students at mature colleges is particularly striking. At St Edmund’s Hall, which admits approximately 98 undergraduates a year, 31 students have intermitted in the past three years, amounting to 10.5% of the student body. The other three mature colleges in the University also have consistently high rates of intermission: Wolfson College (34 and 8.4%), Lucy Cavendish College (34 and 7.87%) and Hughes Hall (11 and 3.6%).

Patricia Duff, who previously served as the mature students representative for CUSU, commented: “It is generally understood that family pressures can be far greater for matures because they are the ones juggling all sorts of demands on their time; so the greater incidence is not surprising.” She continued: “Advice is targeted at undergraduates of 18–21 age bracket and not to those undergraduates and postgraduates of more mature years who have different financial, physical and emotional scenarios.”

Jack Wright also expressed concerns about the wider implications of the process of intermission: “My main concern with regards to intermitting is that when intermitting is treated as a cure-all, the fact is students with chronic illnesses will be pressured to intermit against their wishes and against medical advice that says the problem will only get worse.” He added: “If such students’ degrees are being impacted by a chronic illness, they need to be helped to access the extended study options that exist here, rather than being advised as if they can be cured in a year.”

Subject variations

TCS also obtained the breakdown of students who intermit per subject, which highlighted several significant differences in the rates of intermission across different subjects. For certain subjects, including Archaeology and Anthropology, PPS, Maths, and English exhibited consistently high rates of intermission. For example, in the past three years 55 English students have intermitted, compared to seven Geography students.

SMC argued that more information is needed before any action is taken. “We need to find out more about the real, personal student experiences of degrading / intermitting. This may involve looking at the pressure put on (or not put on) students by academic staff to intermit against their will and the interactions students had with the colleges whilst they were away – and if this relationship affected their decision to return.”

'Degrading is Degrading'

As previously reported by TCS, a petition was created by the ‘Degrading is Degrading’ (DiD) group in 2011/12, as part of the Disabled Students’ Campaign. The petition aimed to secure the removal of the requirement for intermitting students to reside outside of Cambridge during their intermission. It also looked to reduce disparities between some colleges’ intermission processes. The petition suceeded in renaming the process from ‘degrading’ to a less negative term, ‘disregarding terms’, made official by a change in the Statutes and Ordinances of the University.

Esther Leighton, who has previously served as the Disabled Students’ Officer for the University, told TCS: “The DiD campaign had some huge successes, but there is still a phenomenal amount to do… The name change was a symptom of a problem with the system, and while the name has changed and some aspects of the system have, more should be done to improve the experience of intermitted students.”

Correction: The first paragraph of this article was updated 12/02/15 in light of discussions with the University. The previous version read: "An investigation by 'The Cambridge Student' has revealed that national figures accrediting Cambridge University as having one of the “lowest drop-out rate” in the country may be misleading when compared with official university statistics."