Drop out knockout - Should Civils be concerned by high student drop out rates?
The Public Accounts Committees recent report on student retention in higher education indicated that there has been little or no improvement in retention rates since their last review five years ago. Engineering students had some of the highest dropout rates recorded for individual courses, with 11.7% of students failing to start the second year at their original choice of university.
Should universities offering civil engineering undergraduate degrees be concerned by these statistics and how do they affect the current shortage of civil engineers in the UK?
Minimising student dropout rates is important to all universities and needs to be addressed during the admission process and once a student has arrived at the university. As an admission tutor my focus is on the former.
Students drop out of courses for various reasons. Mostly these can be addressed by trying to ensure that students are well suited to the course they join and not only in terms of academic ability. At City University we encourage attendance at open days and provide opportunities to find out about the format and content of the course. We have strong links to industry and offer our students exposure to real life civil engineering problems from the very start of their studies, a format which might not suit those looking for a "hands off" engineering science approach. Environment and location are also important. If students attend an open day they can decide what suits them best.
The need to widen participation in higher education is often used as a reason for poor retention but this need not be the case. Although admitting students without the necessary mathematical skills severely restricts their ability to perform well, like many other universities, we provide an alternative route through a foundation programme tailored to prepare students for our course. The difficulty we face is evaluating the range of qualifications that students have obtained so that we can decide on the appropriate point of entry.
How do the student retention statistics affect the current shortage of civil engineers in the UK?
The statistics were based on the 2004/5 intake, but there has since been a dramatic rise in entry to civil engineering undergraduate courses; our applications increased by 79% from 2005 to 2007.
Reasons for this probably include media coverage of projects such as the Olympics. The introduction of tuition fees also benefited civil engineering. It is seen as "good value for money" and can offer opportunities for sponsorship to minimise student debt. In addition, most universities are already participating in outreach projects with local schools as suggested by the Public Accounts Committee report.
I predict that this dramatic increase in undergraduates will create an equally dramatic increase in graduates, largely unaffected by student retention issues, substantially reducing the current shortage of civil engineers.
- Dr Sarah Stallebras is admissions tutor for civil engineering courses at City University