Debt blamed for university drop-out increase

Edinburgh Napier University. Picture: Phil Wilkinson
Edinburgh Napier University. Picture: Phil Wilkinson
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UNIVERSITY bosses have been urged to boost support for students struggling with debt after new figures revealed more than one in ten are dropping out of their courses in the Capital.

The data from the Higher Education Statistics Agency (Hesa) showed the number of students failing to complete courses has declined since 2005 but remains stubbornly high.

Edinburgh Napier University reported a drop-out rate of 10.8 per cent between 2010 and 2011 – the highest in the city and the third highest nationally after the universities of the West of Scotland and Highlands and Islands. Queen Margaret University (QMU) was just behind on 10.5 per cent.

Heriot-Watt University, with 8.6 per cent of students leaving courses, and Edinburgh University, on 4.5 per cent, also lagged well behind national leader St Andrews, which had a drop-out rate of just 1.5 per cent.

Student leaders said the figures indicated “much more” needed to be done for students at institutions such as Napier and QMU, where a higher proportion come from state schools and deprived backgrounds.

Robin Parker, president of the National Union of Students in Scotland, said: “Universities across Edinburgh and throughout Scotland now need to do more to widen access to education to those from disadvantaged backgrounds, but they also need to do everything they can to keep them in education.

“This is not something that is going to happen in the space of a year, so we need strong ongoing commitments from universities to secure fairer access, and to retain students once they’re in.”

The Hesa figures marked a drop on statistics reported in the 2005-06 academic session, when Napier and QMU experienced drop-out rates of 17.9 and 14.3 per cent. Heriot-Watt saw its rate decline from 9.4 per cent, with Edinburgh University also falling slightly.

Critics welcomed the reduction but insisted too many students from poorer backgrounds were being left to struggle with debt and other financial pressures. And they said action needed to be taken to reverse the Scotland-wide drop-out rate of nine per cent - higher than the 7.4 per cent UK average.

Kezia Dugdale, Lothians Labour MSP, said: “What’s behind these rates is the ability to finance yourself at university. It’s so hard for students who need to hold down a part-time job and pursue their studies, and I think student support in Scotland lags behind what’s available in the rest of the UK.”

University chiefs said steps had already been taken to drive down drop-out rates.

An Edinburgh Napier spokesman said: “We are at the forefront of widening access to university nationally and locally, with around 95 per cent of our students coming from state schools.

“We have a range of measures in place to ensure that all our students are able to engage successfully in their studies.”

A QMU spokeswoman said: “Monitoring and enhancing our student retention is a core element of our activities.

“Over the last three years in particular, we have put in place a range of interventions designed to increase student persistence.

“Our own statistics for academic year 2011/12 suggest that we have reduced the percentage of all students who withdraw to 8.1 per cent.”