David Laws has been writing for Times Higher Education focussing on the worrying number of disadvantaged students dropping out of higher education:
The UK government’s target to double the number of disadvantaged young people going to university by 2020 is laudable. Access to higher education offers a platform for young people to succeed and is central to establishing a meritocratic society.
Nevertheless, while access provides the foundations, it doesn’t build the house. If we’re really serious about meritocracy, we have to be ever vigilant about what happens to young people once they are at university too.
The issue of retention is at the very heart of the social justice agenda but it suffers from a lack of attention and, frankly, a lack of care from both the media and politicians. The most recent statistics from the Higher Education Statistics Agency are a real concern, showing that the proportion of disadvantaged students dropping out increased from 7.7 per cent in 2012-13 to 8.2 per cent in 2013-14. While such rates are low in comparison with international standards, they are still too high. The financial and social consequence of dropping out of university – particularly for those from disadvantaged backgrounds – shouldn’t be underestimated.
Laws wants institutions to focus not just on recruiting more disadvantaged students but on retaining them once there:
If they recruit more students from disadvantaged backgrounds (which I hope they do), they need a clear plan for supporting them. The fact is that such support infrastructure is often below par at our most competitive and elite institutions; the Social Mobility and Child Poverty Commission claimed in its 2015 report State of the Nation that the most selective institutions have the biggest gaps in their non-continuation rates between their most and least advantaged students.
And in particular greater support for those with mental ill health:
But it is not just socially disadvantaged students who need stronger support at university. There has, for instance, been an increase in the number of all types of students who identify as having mental health issues. That doesn’t necessarily mean more students today have mental illnesses: it could be that greater awareness has resulted in more students identifying symptoms or being willing to confide in others. But it does highlight how critical an issue it is for universities to deal with. We know that well-targeted mental health support can help young people to continue in higher education where otherwise they might have dropped out.
You can read David’s piece in full here.