The UK’s newest, smallest and most specialised universities and colleges are doing the best job of looking after students who need the most support, new government figures show.

They are exceeding government benchmarks for keeping down student drop-out rates better than any other type of higher education institution, the latest performance indicators from the Higher Education Statistics Agency reveal.

Some are even beating Oxford and Cambridge at retaining their students.
And they are doing it while taking in more students from state schools and disadvantaged backgrounds and those with disabilities than most universities across the country.

The indicators published on June 5 measure how well universities are doing at retaining their students and attracting entrants from state schools, lower socio-economic groups, neighbourhoods with low higher education participation rates, and those in receipt of a disabled students allowance.

The latest figures show that in 2006/07 universities and colleges that are members of GuildHE, the body that represents smaller and specialist HE institutions, significantly outperformed universities in other representative groups by exceeding their benchmarks for retaining their students.

An analysis by GuildHE has found that its institutions on average beat their benchmark in this crucial area by 1.86 percentage points. In comparison, members of both the Russell Group of research-intensive universities and the 1994 Group of smaller research universities bettered their benchmark by only 0.32 percentage points, while members of the Million+ group of former polytechnics exceeded their benchmark by only 0.43 percentage points.

The finding is particularly significant when other indicators are taken into account, showing that GuildHE institutions are teaching more students from state schools and disadvantaged backgrounds than most other universities.
On average, just over 36 per cent of young full-time undergraduates in GuildHE institutions are from working class families, compared with just over 20 per cent in Russell Group universities and 30 per cent across the UK. An average of 95.8 per cent of young full-time undergraduates at GuildHE institutions are from state schools, against a national average of 88.3 per cent. And an average 7.9 per cent of full-time undergraduates at GuildHE institutions are in receipt of a disabled students allowance, compared with a national average of 4.3 per cent.

Alice Hynes, GuildHE’s chief executive, said: “The latest performance indicators show that the more intimate educational communities, including smaller and specialist universities and colleges, providing education on a human scale and it is paying dividends. These GuildHE institutions can legitimately claim to be the caring face of higher education. They put a lot of time, effort and resources into supporting their students, many of whom are from disadvantaged backgrounds. The result is that they manage to retain students who might well drop out if they were studying in a larger more impersonal context.

“It is clear that many students prefer to study in the environment of a smaller institution where they can see how they fit in and where they get more personal attention. Perhaps this is why many GuildHE institutions are growing in popularity faster than any others in the country.”

Mark Featherstone-Witty, principal of Liverpool Institute of Performing Arts, whose student continuation rate beats that of Oxford and Cambridge universities, said: “I think a lot of our success is down to the fact that we put such a lot of time and effort into actually seeing the people who apply for places. We interview well over half of those who apply. It means we can really make sure that those who come here are on the right course and can benefit from what we have to offer.”

Brian Revell, dean of external liaison at Harper Adams University College, which has scored 16.5 percentage points above its benchmark for admitting students from working class families, said: “Students are better supported in an institution like ours. Staff are more accessible, and students feel part of a community and not just a number in a huge institution.”

Professor Stuart Bartholomew, principal of The Arts Institute at Bournemouth, which has exceeded its benchmark for teaching students in receipt of a disabled students allowance by 6.9 percentage points, said: “The Institute, together with its GuildHE colleagues, is firmly and proudly committed to Widening Participation. We have used Performance Indicators to monitor and analyse our initiatives and I believe that we have made excellent progress.”