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What does it mean for a student to succeed?

Dr Clare Sansom reports back on a session entitled ‘Exploring the Student Experience’; at the Centre for Distance Education’s workshop ‘Supporting Student Success’ in October 2019 which covered student retention, course completion and career progression.

Written by Guest blogger: Dr Clare Sansom |

No two students will necessarily agree, but there are ingredients for success that are common to all disciplines, levels and modes of study.

A session entitled ‘Exploring the Student Experience’; at the Centre for Distance Education’s workshop ‘Supporting Student Success’ in October 2019 included two presentations that may, together, have covered most of these: student retention, course completion and career progression.

Firstly, the head of the CDE, Dr Linda Amrane-Cooper, and CDE Fellow Professor Alan Tait presented results from a project on retention and completion along with another Fellow, Dr Pete Cannell. Then Dr Akanimo Odon, Africa Adviser at the University of London, gave a practical presentation on graduate employability with a specific focus on students in resource-poor regions.

Exploring retention and progression in flexible learning provision – a case study from the University of London

Alan Tait started the first presentation by placing issues of retention and progression in the context of the University of London and its International Programme.

Almost always, student dropout rates in higher education decrease from full-time to part-time provision, and, for part-time students, from campus to distance-based education. Furthermore, it is particularly challenging to retain students from non-traditional backgrounds, who work or care for families (or, in some cases, do both) or have disabilities.

These students are also disproportionately attracted to the flexible, distance-based education offered by the International Programmes and the UK’s Open University, so it is not surprising that these institutions often report low completion rates at both the module and the qualification level.

Much of the discussion of retention in the UK centres around data metrics such as the results of HESA student surveys. It can be challenging to obtain similar data for distance students, particularly those based overseas: some have good reasons to dislike answering questionnaires or can’t be made to squeeze into demographic categories that work perfectly well for UK campus-based students.

Linda presented results from a survey of the student data that had been obtained from three distance-based University of London programmes between 2012 and 2017.

This showed that many students had complex ‘learner journeys’ with changes of plan and long gaps, but that this did not preclude eventual qualification; and that those in the first year of study were the most vulnerable.

This data suggests that paying more attention to students in that crucial first year could improve retention. Fortunately, it seems that the UK’s Office for Students is showing signs of re-thinking its apparent bias in favour of the most straightforward, traditional student pathways.

Employability - practical steps for differentiation in a competitive space

Arguably, successful graduation is only one step on the pathway to student success. For many students, the main objective of graduating is to qualify for the job of their dreams – or even, in an increasingly crowded graduate employment market, simply for an acceptable job. Akanimo Odon used his experience of working with students in Africa and the UK to give a broad perspective on graduate employability followed by some practical tips for students and those who advise them.

He began by describing the crowded and competitive space in which our graduates find themselves. Higher education is increasingly in demand worldwide and the number of graduates is rising, but so, in many places, is graduate unemployment. Almost 50% of recent graduates in Nigeria were unemployed in 2017, compared to under 10% in many Western countries and, interestingly, 6% in both South Africa and Indonesia.

Despite these worrying statistics, however, many current students have few career aspirations and may fail to visit (even remotely) their institution’s Careers Office.

In this context, Akanimo presented a practical guide to how these currently disengaged students should go about ‘taking the career bull by the horns’ to develop a fulfilling one, and how we can advise them.

He pointed out that employment is only one of ‘three E-routes’ for graduates, the others being entrepreneurship and more education. Students should be encouraged to think about what they enjoy doing as well as what they do best, as rewarding careers can develop from hobbies. Clubs and societies, whether student based or not, can yield important networking opportunities. And it is equally useful for them to ‘think outside the box’ – or even remove the box altogether – when it comes to the all-important CV, particularly for new graduates.

Volunteering almost always looks good on a CV, as does part-time work: and in Africa, at least, the largest employer in a city is often its university. And, finally, finding a trusted advisor or mentor will often help a student or graduate find employment success.

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