Stressed students ill-informed about choices

Lack of maths blamed for non-progression rates in computer science and engineering

One in six students in higher education is not progressing past the first year of the course, new figures show.This adds up to some 6,500 students a year.

A new report to be published shortly by the Higher Education Authority highlights mounting concern over non-progression rates for higher certificate (level 6) and ordinary degree courses (level 7) in particular. These courses, typically offered at institutes of technology, show dropout rates of 29-30 per cent.

Construction, services and computer science have some of the highest levels of non-progression.

In some individual courses, dropout rates are as high as 80 per cent. High dropout rates in such areas as computer science are cause for alarm given the emphasis placed on the sector in Ireland’s economic recovery.

The HEA report says: “The country is facing a severe skills shortage in the ICT sector and with the implementation of initiatives such as the ICT Skills Action Plan 2014-2018 which targets incentivising an additional 1,250 ICT undergraduate places in higher education institutions per year.

“We must be careful that the correct students are being selected for these courses with sufficient levels of academic preparedness particularly in the areas of higher level mathematics ability.”

The report notes that almost one-third of all new entrants to the institute of technology sector enter with 300 points or less compared to just under 1 per cent in the university sector. “Perhaps direct entry to higher education is not the only option for these lower points’ students,” the report says.

“Further development of clear transition links between further and higher education sectors is key. The potential pathways and progression routes available to students needs to be clearly communicated, with the option of mobility within and between institutions.”

A key factor affecting dropout rates seems to be that students are ill-informed about course choices.

Why Students Leave, a report commissioned by the National Forum for the Enhancement of Teaching and Learning, gathered responses from more than 4,000 students as part of its research published last year.

The main reason for dropping out, it found, was choosing the wrong course. Most made their choice during the final terms of the secondary school when they were under pressure with examinations. This led many students to make uninformed or rushed decisions.

Some entered courses with entirely misplaced conceptions about the content and found the course either too difficult or that they had little interest in the subject matter.

Rural areas

There are other issues too, such as money. This was a concern for many students, particularly living expenses, accommodation and travel costs. These were especially difficult for students moving from rural to urban areas and included those who commuted long distances daily.

Another reason for non-completion related to health and medical issues, predominantly emotional and mental health.

Colleges such as Galway-Mayo Institute of Technology, which has one of the highest non-progression rates, recorded a dropout rate of some 70 per cent in its mechanical engineering course between 2014 and 2015.

It says it has targeted student retention as a priority with the appointment of a retention officer, and the resourcing of one-to-one support. But it says maths ability is a key factor in determining whether students cope with such courses as engineering and computer science.

The college is considering raising its entry requirement for maths for engineering, and it is also exploring ways to provide more timely support to students who are struggling.

Prof Brian MacCraith, president of Dublin City University and chairman of a Government-commissioned review group into science, technology, engineering and maths, agreed that the maths ability of students was a major issue.

He said students at third level were increasingly unable to cope with courses that required competence in maths and required extra support to pass their exams.

A considerable minority of students were now reliant on learning supports in order to succeed at third level.

He said DCU’s increased use of computing tutors and maths learning support had been responsible for a significant improvement in its progression figures.

He said there were three main contributory factors to low completion rates in computing: low entry points, poor mathematics ability and the absence of a computing curriculum at second level.

The HEA report, meanwhile, says that the role of career guidance teachers at second level is vital.

“Students need to know what subjects are required to successfully progress in the disciplines they are choosing,” the report states.

“A cut to the numbers of career guidance teachers during the recession years has been reversed in the recent budget and this is very much welcomed.

“Continuing to strengthen links between second-level and higher education institutions will encourage innovative strategies that enable informed decision-making on the part of the student. Open days and graduate talks at second level should be encouraged by all schools and institutions. Moreover, as suggested by the National Forum report (2015) on non-completion, ‘college experience’ (similar to work experience) options should be introduced.”

Healthy rates

Ireland's overall non-progression rate at third level, however, is a relatively healthy 16 per cent. This compares relatively well to countries such as the US and Australia, which have much higher dropout rates.

Courses in areas such as medicine, dentistry and education are characterised by very low dropout rates.

Nonetheless, high dropout rates have damaging consequences for students, third-level institutions and broader society.

For students, there is a loss of time, expense and self-confidence. For society, there is the loss of exchequer funding and and an educated workforce. Colleges can end up losing vital resources.

The HEA report notes that higher education is not the be-all and end-all for aspiring students.

The introduction of new apprenticeships in areas such as financial services, information technology and arts, craft and media are positive developments. Improvements in further education provision with the establishment of Solas, the new Further Education and Training Authority, are all positive and encouraging developments whose outcomes can be examined in the coming years.

Non-progression rates: Top 10 ITs

Limerick IT Pharmaceutical and Forensic Analysis (Level 7): 89%*

[* LIT says the majority of its students progressed from its Level 7 course to a Level 8 course of the same name]

IT Tralee Computing with Games Development: 80%

Cork IT Marine Electrotechnology National Maritime College: 73%

IT Tralee Business (accounting or agribusiness):72%

Letterkenny IT Digital Media Design:70%

Galway-Mayo IT Mechanical Engineering :70%

Letterkenny IT Sports Studies :70%

DIT International business and languages (French) :68%

Cork IT IT Management :67%

Limerick IT Civil Engineering :67%

Top 10 universities

University of Limerick Electronics :58%

UCD French: 50%

University of Limerick Computer Games Development: 47%

University of Limerick Politics and Public Administration: 47%

UCD Structural Engineering with Architecture: 40%

University of Limerick Technology Management:40%

Maynooth University Finance: 37%

University of Limerick European Studies: 36%

UCD History: 35%

UCD Economics: 35%

Note: Non-progression rates do not necessarily mean a student has dropped out of a course; they show the number of students in the first year of a course who progressed onto second year. In some cases, students may have transferred to other courses or deferred taking up their second year.