The Use of Data and Evidence in Retention and Progression in Scottish Sector Higher Education Institutions: Report February 2019

Alison Gilmour*, Pete Cannell

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Book/ReportCommissioned report

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Research undertaken as part of the current Enhancement Theme was designed to consider how Scottish higher education institutions (HEIs) make use of evidence to inform and evaluate interventions that aim to improve retention and progression. The research comprised two parts. The first entailed desk-based research using publicly available evidence on policy and practice in Scotland. The second involved stakeholder engagement comprising semi-structured interviews aimed at key sector stakeholders targeting staff leading on retention at Scottish HEIs, and the Scottish Funding Council Outcome Agreement team to obtain a cross-sectoral perspective. The stakeholder work also included a short email survey sent to members of the Scottish Higher Education Developers network.

The report will be of interest to staff and students active in higher education (HE) retention initiatives, as well as senior management, policy makers and planners. In the report we present a critical overview of the publicly available literature, identify issues and themes, provide links to examples of practice and resources, and make recommendations for further action. The full report and further reading resources are available on the Enhancement Theme web pages.

The following summarises the main points arising from the research. 1. Student retention is a critical component of strategic success in widening participation for the Scottish higher education (HE) sector. 2. The most significant driver for Scottish HEIs in their engagement with retention work is a concern with the student experience, progression and success. 3. The standard definition of retention in terms of progression from first year to second year has limited use for part-time study or flexible programmes. There is a challenge to find better and more widely recognised metrics to account for student progression and success in these contexts. 4. There are wide variations in retention rates by protected characteristic, between institutions and between disciplines within institutions. 5. Systematic collection and monitoring of retention data takes place across the Scottish sector. Interoperability between different databases is a challenge for many institutions 6. There is a widespread interest in the use of learning analytics. However, only a small number of HEIs are currently using learning analytics to support retention initiatives. There is active discussion around ethics, purposes and practice. 7. Increased use of learning analytics and big data poses ethical challenges and there is considerable debate about this within institutions and across the sector. 8. The international literature suggests that learning analytics should work hand in hand with pedagogical research. However, high levels of retention-focused activity across the sector are not reflected in published research and scholarship. 9. Retention is a complex, multi-factorial challenge. Describing and monitoring what happens at all levels of the system is relatively straightforward. Understanding underlying causes is a challenge. There is scope for sharing ideas and expertise on these difficult evaluative questions across the sector. 10. There is also a case for sector collaboration on professional development for academic staff in the use of data and evidence in retention interventions.

Four key observations, for reflection within the sector, are proposed: 1. addressing the apparent disconnect between the wealth of retention focused practice, the institutional emphasis on improving data (primarily quantitative) and grounding of this practice in retention pedagogy 2. placing more emphasis on qualitative retention and progression data 3. drawing together more effectively institutional knowledge and expertise to address retention and progression challenges 4. increase research and scholarship that explore the use of teaching practice for good retention.
Original languageEnglish
PublisherQuality Assurance Agency Scotland
Commissioning bodyQuality Assurance Agency Scotland
Number of pages33
Publication statusPublished - 28 Feb 2019
Externally publishedYes


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