Lockdown Causes Increase in Student Drop Out Rates

By Amy Murray

Universities have not been immune to the life-altering impact of Covid-19. It appears that restrictions on university life have had some impact on student decisions. Information obtained from University of Ulster has revealed an increase in the number of students who have temporarily dropped out of university. 

The university saw an increase by almost 11 percent in students choosing this option during the academic year of 2019-2020, when the first lockdown began. This year, a further seven-point eight percent elected to choose this option as restrictions continue.

Despite this, the university has seen a significant decrease in permanent withdrawals, from 10-point four percent in 2017-2018, to less than eight percent in 2019-2020. Although 2020-2021 figures were not available, they commented that student retention appears normal, despite the “slight increase” in students electing to take a leave of absence.

When restrictions were first implemented in March 2020, Ulster University made several decisions to ensure students were still able to achieve their best work. Additional resits were introduced without the normal penalty of capped marks. A module-based algorithm was also introduced to determine if the interruptions to teaching had made a significant impact on results. As such, the number of students who failed or had to repeat the year decreased. In 2017-2018, early leavers and those who failed the academic year accounted for over ten percent of all students. By 2019-2020, this figure fell to less than seven percent. 

Queens University Belfast failed to respond to an FOI request within the timeframe. However, information which was previously obtained revealed a steady increase in permanent voluntary withdrawals in recent years. In the last academic year 2020-2021, withdrawals jumped up by 20 percent. This comes after a steady two percent increase in 2018-2019, and a six percent increase in 2019-2020.

Caolan Donaghy dropped out of PPE at Queen’s University Belfast this year. He said his learning style wasn’t compatible with online classes.

“I like having things to physically show up for. It kind of motivates me to complete the work properly when I have a physical date to show up for.”

“In semester one, a lot of my lectures and learning materials were just published at the start of the week and then you could watch them in your own time.”

“I suppose for some people who have more flexible schedules, they would prefer that. I personally like having a more solid, non-changing schedule so I can work my week around it.”

Caolan dropped out of the course after a little over three months of online teaching from September to December. He is planning to study the same course in Manchester.

“I suppose in just the few months I did spend in university I just kind of realised I wanted to move away and see new things and spend my university time in mainland UK.”

With a lack of social events at the start of his first year, Caolan felt his university experience got off to a disappointing start.

“The social side was pretty downgraded from a fresher’s standpoint.”

“There were a few nights out when pubs were still open but then beyond that, when you’re in lockdown, you can’t invite strangers round to your house to get to know them in that context… It definitely impacted my ability to get to know people on my course.”

The Student Money Survey conducted by Save The Student in 2020 revealed that 59 percent of students have considered dropping out of university at some point, and a further eight percent have gone through with it. The top two more frequently mentioned reasons were mental health and money worries.

Image by  Mary Pahlke from Pixabay 

Restrictions on student finance have deterred many from dropping out or suspending their course. In most circumstances, students are only entitled to full funding for one undergraduate degree, even if they do not make it to graduation. On top of this, students across the UK have protested decisions by universities to continue to charge full fees despite the interruption to teaching.

Software Engineering student Kelan said he seriously considered dropping out this year. Above all else, he was worried about the financial impact that dropping out would have on his academic future.

“Why are we paying effectively three times the money as an open university with a similar lack of physical facilities and in-person teaching?”

“If there had been some framework put in place there, certainly I would feel that safety net because I could drop out and repeat and my fees would be secured to be paid for the year that I would repeat.”

During this academic year, he felt support was lacking.

“When I was strongly considering making that I decision I think it was very much due to the lack of support. The framework we’ve had in place for the adaptation of teaching resources is half baked at best and it’s not being fully realised, or indeed effectively implemented.”

He also said many of his friends were struggling to find a sensible work-life balance.

“It feels that very much we’re trapped at work in the case of you might do a bit of work one day and then there’s three days of just trying to destress from that progression. And very much the isolation throughout and the lack of attention from teaching staff as well is quite problematic.”

Author profile

Amy Murray is a QUB Music Graduate and current Journalism MA student at Ulster Univeristy. She has a passion for Cultural, Social and Solutions Journalism. She represented Northern Ireland at the British Council’s Future News Worldwide Conference in 2019.