Students drop out of university for a whole range of reasons. Student retention has long been a measure of an institution’s success (or failure) but, while most institutions have support mechanisms in place for ‘at risk’ students, the responsibility for withdrawing from university has traditionally been laid squarely on the student’s shoulders.
Professor Liz Thomas has been researching student equity and outcomes in higher education for more than two decades. Her work has changed the way higher education providers think about student retention, shifting the focus away from why some students drop out and towards how institutions can support them to keep going. Professor Thomas’s work on the importance of student engagement and fostering a sense of ‘belonging’ among students, is informing national policy, changing approaches to student retention and improving outcomes, particularly for those from under-represented groups.
“This research has radically changed the workings of the English higher education system. When we started this research in 2008, there was a general assumption that you addressed student retention by putting in some additional support services. We’ve shifted that whole debate to focus on engagement and belonging as part of the academic experience. Focusing on learning and teaching improves retention, but also addresses student equity, ensuring all students benefit, so everyone wins.”Liz Thomas, Professor of higher education
Changing practice through research
Around 1.5 million undergraduate students and 300 higher education providers have benefited from Edge Hill’s research into student equity. The findings have informed two fundamental aspects of the HE regulatory framework in England – Access and Participation Plans and the Teaching Excellence Framework – ensuring equity, engagement and belonging are integral to the student experience.
A sense of belonging
Previous research into student retention concentrated on identifying types of students most likely to withdraw from their courses. This led to HE providers either avoiding recruiting those students in the first place or targeting support towards those most ‘at risk’.
Professor Thomas’s work moves away from what students might be lacking and, instead, looks at institutional responsibility – specifically, what institutions can change to make learning, teaching and the overall student experience more engaging and effective for all students. Her research suggested that changes and interventions need to be embedded into the academic experience, rather than added on, and that institutions should foster a sense of belonging in students through supportive relationships with peers and staff, developing the capacity to engage, and providing a relevant higher education experience that connects to students’ current interests and future aspirations.
Later research building on these findings, identified specific groups that find it more difficult to engage and belong. Research involving more than 17,000 students from 13 institutions found that male, non-White and disadvantaged students, especially those who commuted to university every day, were least likely to engage with, or feel a sense of belonging to, their institution. This has influenced the work of the Office for Students, which develops regulations for higher education providers in the UK, and informed whole institution approaches to retention and success.
“Professor Thomas’s work centralising student engagement and belonging and whole provider approaches is likely to have influenced the majority of higher education providers in England…Professor Thomas’ research on access and participation has contributed significantly to how we shape our expectations of providers to change their behaviour, how they have responded to that and, in so doing, improvements to the experiences and outcomes of students throughout England.”Director of Fair Access and Participation, Office for Students
The reach of Professor Thomas’s research goes beyond England, with the principles being embedded into the Teaching Excellence Framework being adopted by universities and colleges throughout the UK.
“The TEF panel and the TEF process itself have been informed by Professor Thomas’s research knowledge and expertise about the relationship between student diversity and disadvantage on the one hand, and student experience and outcomes in higher education and beyond on the other. Her work was an important contributor to the evolution of the TEF assessment process and to informing institutional ratings for every institution in England and Wales, and a number in Scotland… Drawing on an extensive research base was a very valuable addition to the TEF panels… Throughout the TEF process over 300 higher education providers have been assessed, covering the majority of undergraduate students in the UK (1.5 million). The contribution of Professor Thomas to the TEF panel is therefore extensive in its reach, and significant in ensuring the process and outcomes genuinely take into account student diversity and recognise what higher education providers are doing to address equality of experience and outcomes for all students. The legacy of this work is greater as it has informed the development of TEF processes and developed the capacity of officers and peers involved in the process. More generally, the TEF and the work of the widening participation experts has sharpened the focus of the entire sector on intersectional disadvantage and on institutional policies to build success.”Vice-Chancellor of Sheffield Hallam University and Chair of the Teaching Excellence and Student Outcomes Framework
The research has also impacted on students across the globe, in Europe, the US and UAE.
Professor Thomas has worked extensively with Macmillan Learning as the only non-US member of its Learning Research Advisory Committee and her work has informed the development of several of its products. These include the student engagement tool, iClicker, which is used by more than 1,100 US institutions to support in-person and online learning.
Professor Thomas has also contributed to a project by Erasmus, the EU education and training programme, which involved partners in the Netherlands, Germany, Portugal and Malta. ‘Towards a sense of belonging in an inclusive learning environment,
♯IBelong’ translated ideas of belonging into a suite of inter-related activities for course teams that were implemented and evaluated using Professor Thomas’s methods. In its first year, the scheme impacted on nearly 700 students, academic staff and mentors, and showed improvements in learning and teaching, students getting to know staff and each other and academic community.
This has led to a second project with Erasmus, ‘Social Inclusion and Academic Success of Chinese Students in EU higher education’, working with universities in Spain, Germany, Portugal and the UK.
Belonging in a post-covid world
When lectures are on zoom and your student residence is your bedroom at home, the concepts of belonging and engagement suddenly become very different. If a dual model of delivery becomes the norm, with some aspects of academic life continuing online in the future, how will HE providers ensure students still feel part of their institution?
Professor Thomas sees this as an integral part of her post-pandemic research. Prior to lockdown, she worked with students at Edge Hill to develop an understanding of how students see belonging through photographs. The results showed very clearly that the physical buildings and environment of campus were central to students’ experience of belonging to Edge Hill. The challenge now will be for HE providers to find ways to address this new issue – and Professor Thomas’s work on commuter students, who have always had similar issues with their sense of belonging, could be a starting point for wider change in the post-Covid HE landscape.
Our research means that
- Students have a better chance of finishing their studies and progressing to graduate employment, regardless of their background.
- Higher education providers have evidence that active and inclusive learning and teaching can improve student equity and outcomes, and have a positive impact on retention rates.
- Education regulations include a whole institution approach to equity and success that has engagement and belonging at its heart.