Drop-out rates: UK students at Scottish universities

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The Higher Education Statistics Agency (HESA) publishes annual statistics on the non-continuation (“drop-out”) rate among first degree students at higher education institutions (HEIs) across the UK. It published its latest round of non-continuation figures on 8 March 2018. These included statistics about the drop-out rate among UK domiciled students attending HEIs based in Scotland.

What these figures offer is a picture of the drop-out rate among students from any part of the UK that are studying for a degree at a UK HEI. In this blog, I’ve analyzed the figures on drop out from Scottish HEIs. The second blog on this theme then looks at the data on UK students returning to higher education after a year away.

Drop-out rates among full time first degree students

Table 1 shows the number and proportion of full time degree students who started a degree in academic year 2015-16 who did not continue their studies in academic year 2016-17. The methodology adopted by HESA to identify who is included as a continuing student and who is not can be found here.

What Table 1 shows is large differences between HEIs in the number of UK students that start each year. For some of the smaller HEIs this means you should be careful in reading too much into the percentages reported – small changes in the numbers can lead to significant percentage changes.

Table 1: Drop-out among all full-time degree entrants (AY 2015-16)

HE provider Number entrants Number not continuing % not continuing
The University of Aberdeen 1,680 85 5.2
University of Abertay Dundee 1,035 145 14.1
The University of Dundee 2,260 120 5.3
Edinburgh Napier University 2,680 300 11.3
The University of Edinburgh 4,005 155 3.9
Glasgow Caledonian University 3,060 205 6.8
Glasgow School of Art 335 10 3.6
The University of Glasgow 3,555 190 5.3
Heriot-Watt University 1,595 130 8.2
Queen Margaret University, Edinburgh 715 75 10.4
The Robert Gordon University 1,995 140 7.1
Royal Conservatoire of Scotland 205 5 1.9
The University of St Andrews 1,035 35 3.2
SRUC 280 25 9.6
The University of Stirling 1,850 125 6.8
The University of Strathclyde 3,190 245 7.7
University of the Highlands and Islands 575 65 11
The University of the West of Scotland 3,900 490 12.5
Total Scotland 33,945 2,555 7.5

Table 1 shows a drop-out rate of 7.5% across all Scottish HEIs – or just over two and a half thousand students starting a full time degree in 2015-16, not continuing their studies in 2016-17.

Within that overall picture, we see that the University of St Andrews (3.2%) and University of Edinburgh (3.9%) had by far the lowest drop-out rates. In contrast, the University of Abertay Dundee (14.1%), the University of West of Scotland (12.5%), Edinburgh Napier University (11.3%) and Queen Margaret University (10.4%) reported far higher than average drop-out rates.

Drop-out rates among young and mature full time degree first students

Figure 1 shows clear differences in drop-out rates between young (those aged under 21 when they started their studies) and mature students (those aged 21 or over when they started their studies).

Figure 1: Drop-out among young and mature full-time degree students (UK) at Scottish HEIs (2015-16 entrants)

Student drop-out - figure 1 21032018Source: HESA non-continuance statistics (8 March 2018)

In 2015-16, mature students were only one in four (24.9%) of the full time entrants to degree programmes at Scottish HEIs. But, this group of students had a significantly higher drop-out rate (11.5%) after a year of full time study compared with young students (6.2%) at almost every Scottish HEI.

As with the data in Table 1, Figure 1 shows significant variance between HEIs in terms of the proportion of UK students that dropped out – and within that, significant variance between young and mature students at each HEI.

Some key points about young students:

  • While the drop-out among young students across all Scottish HEIs was 6.2%, it was significantly lower at the older / ancient institutions: St Andrews (2.8%), Edinburgh (3.5%); Glasgow (4.5%); Dundee (4.7%); and Aberdeen (4.9%).
  • In contrast, young students at some of the post-1992 HEIs had significantly higher than average drop-out rates: Abertay (11.1%); Napier (10.5%); Queen Margaret (10.7%) and West of Scotland (9.9%).

And some key points about mature students:

  • While mature students are more likely to drop-out after first year (11.5%), there are a small number of HEIs where the drop-out rate is well below the Scotland average: Aberdeen (6.7%); Dundee (7.6%); and Stirling (8%).
  • In contrast, the drop out among mature students at Abertay (18.4%), Napier (12.5%), Heriot Watt (12.6%), St Andrews (13.9%), Strathclyde (13%) and West of Scotland (15%) was higher than average.


The intention here has been to show the extent of drop-out among full time UK students taking a first degree at a Scottish HEI. The figures indicate that young entrants to full time degree study are far less likely to drop-out after the first year than mature students. We also see quite big differences in the drop-out rates at different Scottish HEIs.

What the statistics cannot tell us is why these differences occur. In reality the reasons that a student drops-out of their studies are likely to be varied and complex; influenced by factors that too numerous and speculative to comment on here. We also don’t know from these figures whether drop out at the end of first year indicates an end to participation in higher education. This theme is picked up in the second blog, which looks at return to higher education after a year away.

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