Drop-out and returns: UK students at Scottish universities

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This is the second blog about students dropping out of university. The first blog considered statistics published by the Higher Education Statistics Agency (HESA) on 8 March 2018 showing non-continuation (“drop-out”) rates among full time degree students at Scottish higher education institutions (HEIs).

As part of the same release, HESA also published statistics on UK students who resumed their studies after a year away. As with the drop-out statistics, these offer data for each Scottish HEI, but cannot tell us specifically about Scottish domiciled students attending Scottish HEIs. That said, the data does tell an interesting story about the overall picture of returns to study after a year away.

Returning to study

What is interesting about these figures is that they tell us about a different part of the experience of drop-out. Instead of just counting the number of students that don’t progress from first to second year of a degree programme they indicate whether students that have dropped out after first year return after a year away.

So what these figures report on is students that started a full time degree in academic year 2014-15 who dropped out in 2015-16. The question here is what happened to them in academic year 2016-17? Did they return to study or remain out of higher education?

As with the drop-out statistics, the figures published by HESA tell a general story about return rates among young students (those who were under 21 when they started their degree) and mature students (those who were 21 or older when they stated their degree). In this blog, I’ve only analyzed and reported the all age figures but the same trends as were seen with drop-out rates apply. In short, it is more common for mature students not to return to their studies than young students.

Table 1 is provided here to give some context to the issues discussed later when we turn to consider percentages of students returning or not returning to higher education after a year away. It simply intends to show, for each Scottish HEI, the number of students being tracked through from entry in 2014-15, drop-out in 2015-16 and whether they return in 2016-17.

Table 1: UK students entering, leaving and returning to higher education (2014-15 entrants) by 2016-17

Number entrants Dropped out Returned to HEI Changed HEI Not returned
University of Aberdeen 1,780 105 15 15 75
University of Abertay Dundee 945 105 5 10 90
University of Dundee 2,180 115 10 10 100
Edinburgh Napier University 2,820 305 60 35 210
University of Edinburgh 3,765 150 25 35 95
Glasgow Caledonian University 3,490 310 40 30 245
Glasgow School of Art 285 10 0 0 10
University of Glasgow 3,415 175 30 25 120
Heriot-Watt University 1,550 115 10 15 90
Queen Margaret University, Edinburgh 780 105 10 10 85
Robert Gordon University 1,980 140 15 15 115
Royal Conservatoire of Scotland 205 10 0 0 10
University of St Andrews 1,330 35 10 10 20
SRUC 230 35 5 0 25
University of Stirling 2,015 125 15 5 105
University of Strathclyde 3,110 245 60 40 145
University of the Highlands and Islands 515 45 5 5 35
University of the West of Scotland 3,270 505 85 45 375
Total Scotland 33,680 2,650 390 310 1,950

Source: Higher Education Statistics Agency (Table T4)

Figure 1 shows the destinations of those students who had dropped out in 2015-16 and whether they had returned to higher education in 2016-17 or not. Some points worth noting from these figures:

  • St Andrews (22.9%) and Edinburgh (23%) had the largest proportion of all Scottish HEIs where UK students returned but went to a new HEI.
  • Strathclyde (24.9%), St Andrews (22.9%) and Napier (19.2%) had the largest proportion of all Scottish HEIs were UK students returned to study at the same HEI.
  • Abertay (86.5%), Stirling (84.3%) and Dundee (83.8%) had the highest rate of UK students not returning to higher education after a year away.
  • Strathclyde (58.4%), St Andrews (54.3%) and Edinburgh (61.8%) had the lowest rate of UK students not returning to education after a year away.

Figure 1: Destinations of 2014-15 UK entrants who had dropped out in 2015-16 (AY 2016-17)

Student return after drop-out - figure 1 21032018

Source: Higher Education Statistics Agency (Table T4)

Figure 2 shows the proportion of students who started in 2014-15 and remained out of higher education in 2016-17. The average figure across all Scottish HEIs was 5.8%, while there was significant variance between institutions:

  • At St Andrews (1.4%) and Edinburgh (2.5%) the non-return rate was relatively low.
  • At Queen Margaret (11.2%) and University of Highlands and Islands (11.5%) the non-return rate was relatively high.

Figure 2: Proportion of 2014-15 entrants who had not returned to higher education by 2016-17

Student return after drop-out Fig2

Source: Higher Education Statistics Agency (Table T4)


As with the data on drop-out from degree study, the reasons that students drop out and do (or do not) return after a year away are likely to be varied and complex. The statistics certainly cannot tell us why some students are more likely to drop out, and why some return, while others do not. They also cannot tell us about why there are differences between institutions.

What these figures do offer are two interesting messages. The first is that there are significant differences in return rates between different HEIs. The second perhaps more important message is that, for some students at least, dropping out at the end of first year does not necessarily mean the end of their time in higher education.

Suzi Macpherson, Senior Researcher, Justice and Social Affairs Research Unit