News that student dropout rates have been climbing across universities comes as no surprise to Treasa Fox.
As head of student counselling at Technological University of the Shannon, she saw first-hand how pandemic-related disruption and online learning led to a surge in isolation, loneliness and disconnection, particularly among first year students.
“So many experienced that sense of disconnection,” she says. “Cameras off. Not wanting to be seen. Lower engagement. Not feeling a sense of belonging.”
The effects were seen in the queues to avail of counselling and mental health services on campus. They were also clear in latest data compiled by the Higher Education Authority, which shows non-progression rates for first year students in 2020/21 climbed to 12 per cent, or more than 5,000 students, up from 9 per cent (about 3,600) the year before.
Male students were more likely to drop out (15 per cent) than females (10 per cent). The rates were highest in institutes of technology or technological universities.
All colleges recorded an increase in non-progression, although the patterns differed.
More than one in five first years dropped out of courses at South East Technological University (SETU) and Dundalk Institute of Technology (21 per cent); followed by Atlantic Technological University (20 per cent); and Munster Technological University, Technological University of Dublin and Technological University of the Shannon (all 17 per cent).
Senior academics and student representatives believe a number of factors were behind these overall increases, in addition to mental health strains.
“I think the data points to a perfect storm of Covid and limited access to in-person student supports,” says Veronica Campbell, president of SETU. “The latter being of critical importance and value to ensuring student success.”
Dr Billy Bennett, vice-president for academic affairs and registrar at Atlantic Technological University, said the return of in-person exams during 2020/21 also proved to be a big challenge for first year students. Most secured the college places on the back of predicted grades instead of sitting the traditional exam.
“They didn’t have the exam experience of managing their study and the discipline you need for a traditional exam,” he says.
The higher dropout rates in technological universities, compared to more traditional universities, reflects the fact that they have a broader intake of students accessing higher diploma as well as honours degree courses, says Dr Bennett.
“The reality is we’re giving opportunities to people right across the range of Leaving Cert attainment, from more modest grades to very high points. We also have a very strong remit in terms of our regional intake and we’re serving the needs of students in some of the most disadvantaged regions of the country.”
While some suggested inflated grades may, in some cases, have led to some students securing courses which, in ordinary years, they may have struggled to access, Dr Bennett believes exam inexperience, as well as a lack of access to student supports, were bigger factors.
At DCU, where non-progression rates are some of the lowest, the university benefited from the fact that most students were pursuing their first-preference programmes and were “highly-motivated”, says its president, Daire Keogh.
Notwithstanding that, he says the university has been “vigilant” in addressing issues relating to student attainment.
“We have exceptional supports for access students, students with disabilities, those coming from the further education sector and those who join as mature students, which helps ensure their success is in line with their peers. This helps the overall figure,” he says.
While data for the 2021/22 year has yet to be published, many registrars say dropout rates crept up to or beyond pre-pandemic levels. This was despite a return to more in-person classes and less remote teaching. Nonetheless, says Fox, many students continued to struggle.
“For many, it was difficult to keep up those levels of energy and motivation,” she says. “For those commuting long distances, especially. It’s not like commuting to work. When you’re going to lectures, it’s a very different type of brain engagement.”