Student dropout rates climb across several universities amid concern over low engagement

Higher education counselling services say record numbers are presenting with anxiety, low mood and loneliness

Several of the State’s universities are reporting increased dropout rates and a dramatic increase in demand for mental health support as students struggle with the shift from remote learning to in-person lectures following the Covid-19 pandemic.

Academics have expressed concern over lower attendance rates in classes and poorer engagement with clubs and societies.

Trinity College Dublin (TCD) and other universities have confirmed that interim figures show the number of students failing to complete their courses has climbed.

This reverses a pattern of falling dropout rates over recent years and comes as counsellors in higher education institutions report record demand for services among students who feel disconnected from college.


Psychological Counsellors in Higher Education Ireland, a representative body for counselling services at third level, estimates that demand for services has climbed by between 23 per cent and 70 per cent this year, on the back of rising numbers of cases in recent years.

Treasa Fox, the group’s spokeswoman, said anxiety, low mood and loneliness are among the most common presentations.

“What we are seeing on the ground, though, is that students have had enough of screens – the bulk of their college experience has been on screen for the past two years,” she said.

“And because of this remote experience, many are not feeling connected to their university or college… many students are languishing, experiencing anxiety and low mood and low motivation to engage with college work.”

Lower attendance

Many academics have reported lower attendance rates at lectures, while students’ unions say involvement with clubs and societies is significantly down on previous years.

While official student dropout or non-progression rates for the higher education sector have yet to be published, several universities have confirmed that more students are failing to complete their courses this year.

At TCD, student non-progression rates had been dropping in recent years, falling to 7.8 per cent in 2019, 7.2 per cent in 2020 and 7 per cent in 2021. This year, they increased to 9.2 per cent, based on latest figures.

A number of other large universities privately confirmed dropout rates have climbed above pre-pandemic levels.

The pattern is less clear at other universities and institutes of technology, where some say dropout rates have held broadly steady so far.

Trish Murphy, acting director of student counselling at TCD, said younger students, in particular, were struggling to adjust.

“Certainly for first years, they have experienced more isolation than normal cohorts, and the adjustment to arriving into social circles of college came with already increased anxiety and histories of far less connection,” she said.

Senior academics say the return of in-person exams has also proved to be a major challenge for some younger students. For many first- and second-year students, the exams last Christmas were the first high-stakes assessments they had sat since their Junior Cert.

Barbara Dooley, deputy registrar at University College Dublin, said a key focus for management next year will be to emphasis the benefits of the on-campus student experience.

“University is about much more than just grades for modules; it’s about personal development and that happens on campus” she said.

Carl O'Brien

Carl O'Brien

Carl O'Brien is Education Editor of The Irish Times. He was previously chief reporter and social affairs correspondent