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DIT and student retention

Author - Frank Costello


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The retention of students and the enhancement of their educational experience must serve as one of the core principles of any institution charged with fulfilling a national and international role in providing full-time and part-time programmes in higher education. However, up to recently student retention was not in the consciousness of educators in Ireland to a degree sufficient for strategies and initiatives to be put in place to effect change and improve it. Over the last 25 to 30 years, tertiary education in Ireland has evolved and developed exponentially, paralleling extraordinary changes in our society. In the past, a solid Leaving Certificate result was a key to gainful employment, while attending third-level was an exception to the general rule. Today, a large number of students see the Leaving Certificate as a key to further education rather than an end in itself. Many now want to proceed to further education after secondary level, a fact reflected in the number of programmes offered to potential students. The universities and institutes of technology have provided the courses and developed multi-varied programmes to attract and provide appropriate qualifications for their students, in order for them to be able to seek and obtain gainful employment, increasingly at home but also abroad.

Many students are successful and gain enormously by passing through and qualifying at third level. However, in contrast, a sizable minority of students do not complete. Commentators will say that it will always be the case that students will ‘drop out’: in the past, many would have experienced the clichéd first-day instruction by a lecturer to look right and left at their fellow-students and take note that, of the three, one will not be attending next year. This culture allowed for poor retention levels and was accepted by educators as a normal filtering process. It was not that the institutions did not want the students to complete; it was more that this was an accepted process.

A dawning

Until quite recently, little research was carried out into student retention in higher education. There are two possible reasons for this. First, non-completion might have been considered to be due to factors beyond the control of colleges. In particular, student motivations and expectations are difficult to influence. Thus, research would have been of little value since little could have been done to influence or address non-completion (Martinez, 1995). Second, the attitude prevailed that non-completion was to be expected, and might as well be accepted as a fact of life; indeed college enrolment practices were often based on the assumption that large numbers would drop out early in their course (McGivney, 1996). In the UK these assumptions were being questioned by the mid nineties, as the need for increased efficiency was giving rise to concern about levels of non-completion (Kenwright, 1997).

In the Irish context, a report entitled Non-completion in higher education: a study of first year students in three institutes of technology was issued in 1999 (Healy et al. 1999). The findings in this report, which related to three institutes that had become very concerned with their rates of non-completion, were very enlightening and provided the basis for further research. The report stated that there had been little or no research on this issue in Ireland heretofore, and not much more in Britain. It went on to say that ‘there appears to be no single factor which explains non-completion in the I.T. sector. A combination of social, personal and institutional factors seem to contribute to early leaving and/or failure’ (Healy et al. 1999).

Other than this report, nothing of any great significance was done about this matter within the Irish context until retention of students became in reality an economic and political issue. On the one hand, as the boom of the mid to late 1990s provided in economic terms full employment, industry was fearful of a future dearth in qualified people coming out of third-level to maintain economic growth. On the other hand, as government had invested heavily in third-level to provide this dynamic highly qualified work force for the burgeoning economy, questions were being asked as to why so many students were not completing college and filling these available jobs.

Original research in Ireland

In 1999 the Education Research Centre (ERC) was commissioned by the Higher Education Authority (HEA) to carry out research into student retention at university level. This resulted in a report by Mark Morgan, Rita Flanagan and Thomas Kellaghan issued in 2001 entitled A study of non-completion in undergraduate university (Morgan et al. 2001). The ERC was also commissioned by Council of Directors of Institutes of Technology to research non-completion in the institutes sector. The result was a comprehensive report by Eemer Eivers, Rita Flanagan and Mark Morgan entitled Non-completion in institutes of technology: an investigation of preparation, attitudes and behaviours among first year students (Eivers et al. 2002).

Uniquely, the Dublin Institute of Technology (DIT) obtained approval directly from the department of education and science to research and provide a report on non-completion in the institute. This was an opportunity for DIT to examine in detail the progression of a cohort of students on its own behalf. The idea of setting up a project to investigate retention issues had been germinated by Jill Barrett as a result of her experiences as a careers adviser in DIT. She was supported by Dr Susan Lindsay who, as head of the counselling service, also had first-hand knowledge of student withdrawal. Funding was arranged and in 1999 DIT had two researchers investigating non-completion issues.