The Flip-Side Of Expansion: How To Avoid Triggering An Institutional Review | HE Research Snippet #14

HE Thinking | 14 Aug 2014


Universities have been operating in a fast-changing environment in recent years. Having timely insights on which to base decisions has never been so important. Our Snippets have offered insight in areas of change.

We’ve looked at how decision-making is evolving among prospective students, the effectiveness of different messaging strategies, and how universities differentiate themselves.

This Snippet looks at how market research can help higher education professionals avoid triggering an institutional review – an Ofsted-like process that would usually happen only every five or six years. With an unpredictable General Election next year, it’s not certain how policy will evolve. But there are indications of core areas which are likely to be part of the programme of any government. One is how Whitehall can retain oversight of public spending as it relinquishes direct control over how many students each university can teach. This system will present threats as well opportunities.


Accountability by outcome, not control through input

In the spring, in one of his last major interventions, David Willetts alluded to a new system based on retrospective accountability. Any university that tries to ‘pile it high and sell it cheap’ and thereby generates ‘above-expected levels of drop-out’ will be subject to review [1]. ‘Unplanned growth’ could be seen as an early warning. Detailed plans are yet to emerge, and a new minister is in charge, but a system of accountability based on measuring non-continuation seems set to replace direct control over numbers. Whether undergraduates complete their degrees has always been important to universities, but it's about to become vital.

Figure 1


To make choices on whether to grow, universities need a sense of the likely impact of expansion on drop-out long before students enrol. Could it be that students who have a less-than-excellent first month at university are more likely to leave in their first year? If so, can we drill-down into what an excellent early experience means and, in doing so, help universities avoid triggering institutional review and the re-imposition of direct controls? An analysis of HESA and YouthSight data side-by-side gives some pointers.

The non-benchmarked HESA data in the above graph shows large differences in continuation rates at UK universities, with rates ranging between 19 and 1 per cent. The benchmarked HESA data (not shown), which attempts to eliminate all the factors except the ones being measured (such as subject mix) ranges between 10 and 2 per cent. Similarly, data from YouthSight’s Higher Expectations on the proportion of new undergraduate students that have ‘excellent’ early experience of university show a broad range. The highest rate is 68 per cent and 23 per cent the lowest.

Five of the top-ten institutions that return the highest proportions of ‘excellent’ early experiences, and eight of the top 20, are not members of the traditional research elite. Four members of the Russell Group feature in the bottom half. Perceptions of excellence are not simply a proxy for institutional reputation.


The more prevalent ‘excellent’ early experiences, the lower the drop-out

When comparing early satisfaction with rates of non-continuation in the first year, the results are striking. As the below graph shows, non-continuation rates in the first year are at their lowest among those institutions where the greatest proportion of first year undergraduates perceive their early university experiences to be ‘excellent’, whether or not we use HESA’s benchmarked data.

Conversely, non-continuation is at its highest among those with the lowest prevalence of ‘excellent’ experiences. By comparing our excellence ratings with both versions of HESA’s data, we can also see that the correlation is not simply a product of factors that should be excluded from judgments on a university’s performance on non-continuation, such as subject mix or location. Whatever the circumstances of a university, drop-out is lower where excellent experiences are more prevalent.

Figure 2



Figure 3

NewFIG4The percentages in these charts reflect the non-continuation rates of the groups of HEIs defined by ranking position 2011/12.
Proportions are based on the percentage of all entrants 'no longer in HE' the year following entry to the institution Full data, not complied into ranking groups, can be accessed here -


Excellent experiences can be created without capital investment

Higher Expectations has measured for the past two years whether a student in her first term of study is likely to recommend her new university and why; a proxy measure for a student’s satisfaction with her early weeks. As you might expect, teaching and staff come top of the list as reasons for recommendation. The relatively tangible considerations like ‘good course’, ‘facilities’ and ‘location’ are also prominent. Affecting these things will take time. Investment in ‘facilities’, for example, does not bring overnight benefits to students.

But, capital investment is not the only way. The third most often-cited measure is the less tangible ‘friendly/welcoming/community atmosphere’, which comes up more frequently than either ‘location’ or ‘facilities’. While evoking such feelings is not necessarily easy, making students feel more welcome has the potential for significant impact in a relatively short time.


You can avoid the burden of institutional review

Universities with granular understandings of the complex set of issues that contribute to an excellent first few weeks at university will be preparing themselves well for expansion, and in doing so, avoid the pain of institutional review and the reimposition of number controls.

YouthSight can help you gain that understanding. As a full-service market research agency, we can work with you to design bespoke projects that draw on our unique back-catalogue of insight on how students behave before they enter university and once they arrive. We can help you identify trends and patterns in practice across the sector, and learn from the best.


Contact the team on 020 7374 0997 or me at to discuss further how market research can help you avoid the pain of institutional review.

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