HC Deb 01 March 2004 vol 418 cc677-8W
Chris Ruane

To ask the Secretary of State for Education and Skills what measures his Department is taking to reduce student drop-out rates. [156523]

Alan Johnson

The UK non-completion rate has stayed broadly the same at around 17–18 per cent. since 1991–92, and in the latest figures published in December 2003 by the Higher Education Funding Council for England (HEFCE) it fell to just over 16 per cent. This represents one of the highest completion rates in the OECD and we are determined to maintain this level of performance.

We have asked HEFCE to bear down on non-completion and their national co-ordination team, Action on Access, is working with institutions to improve retention rates and to spread good practice from those institutions with low drop-out rates and good access figures. The £255 million which HEFCE has allocated to institutions in 2003–04 for widening access and improving retention recognises some of the additional costs of supporting students from non-traditional backgrounds and those who are less well prepared for higher education.

Research indicates that the reasons for non-completion are many and varied, but one factor is incompatibility between the student and their course or institution. It is vital that potential HE students have the right information on which to base sound decisions. We are working with the National Union of Students to develop a new guide to help students narrow down their choices and make decisions about what and where to study. The guide will be linked to the new Aimhigher portal that launched in September 2003. A new National Student Survey is planned to take place in January 2005, seeking the views of final year students on their learning experience. HEFCE will also ensure that there is a wide range of published information about the quality and standards of institutions' programmes.

Another factor which has been associated with non-completion is financial hardship. In addition to statutory student support, discretionary support is also available as a safety net for vulnerable students. For 2003–04, Hardship Loans are available for students who are in such serious financial difficulty that their access to, or continued attendance on a course may be at risk. Grants from the Hardship Fund are also available to help students access and remain in higher education.

From the academic year 2004–05, the Hardship Loans budget will be amalgamated with the Hardship Fund into the new non-repayable, Access to Learning Fund. Students who would previously have been eligible for a Hardship Loan should be able to apply for a grant rather than a loan.

From 2006–07, under proposals laid out in the Higher Education Bill, the poorest students entering higher education will receive up to £2,700 in up-front support, and we are raising the levels of maintenance loan to meet the basic living costs of the mid-range student, in response to the recent Student Income and Expenditure Survey.

Additionally, institutions will, under the terms of access agreements, be required to provide further financial help to poorer students in the form of bursaries.