Report Overview

This report reviews engineering courses at Glasgow University, within the agendas of retention and widening participation. The paper was written by Alison Browitt, Lynn Walker and the University of Glasgow.

Key Findings

  • We explored the relationship between entry qualifications and first year progress in certain Science and Engineering courses, as well as other background characteristics such as socio-economic status, under-representation, age and gender, within the agendas of retention and widening participation. In order to identify underrepresented students who have the ability to succeed but whose potential could be missed we examined the progress of first year students over the past three academic years in five courses in the Faculties of Sciences and Engineering. We found varying levels of progress across the five courses with pass rates ranging between 56% and 83%.
  • Over the three years examined 8% of the three thousand students admitted to the five courses had below the minimum advertised entry requirements. One third of these failed to achieve a satisfactory level in first year courses as opposed to one quarter of all other students examined. In other words, two thirds of those admitted below the entry thresholds made at least satisfactory progress.
  • We found there was an association, albeit statistically weak, between previous entry qualifications and first year progress. First year progress, across the board, was poorer in the three mathematically based courses examined than in the two ‘soft’ Science courses. We discovered an association between a higher level of previous Maths qualification than stated entry requirements and first year progress.
  • The advantage of advanced level school qualifications (good A-level or Advanced Higher) in relevant subjects was highlighted in both quantitative and qualitative analysis. Students who stayed on at school for sixth year in Scotland after qualifying in fifth year achieved better first year grades. Not only did this afford them the opportunity to study to advanced levels but may also have allowed them to develop the emotional maturity required for independent study.
  • Non-standard entrants within the agenda of widening participation are at greater risk of withdrawal than standard entrants. Students with non-standard entry qualifications are a diverse group from a variety of backgrounds. Those who do persist show a high level of commitment to their studies, they can and do achieve high grades.
  • Widening participation students, as identified by three separate measures, are as well qualified as the general body of students and yet make somewhat poorer first year progress. With each measure we saw disadvantaged students slightly underperforming but not overly represented in the failing students category.
  • Pre-entry preparation courses appear to benefit first year students. Widening participation students who undertake certain access courses, summer schools and school-based outreach programmes are more likely to achieve satisfactory grades.
  • Other background characteristics known to be ‘risk factors’ for withdrawal (Patrick, 2004) were examined in relation to first year progress: Age; Gender; part-time employment; distance to travel to University. Consistent with the national trend female students are somewhat outperforming males. However, it is age on entry, not gender, which we saw as influencing non-progression. Students over 21 are twice as likely to be failing to pass the first year courses. We also noted trends between increased hours of part-time work reported or longer commuting time to University and first year progression.
  • Students who show clear signs of motivation out perform less committed students. Students with a clear degree course in mind; who studied an average of ten or more hours per week outside class contact; who mentioned determination to succeed and the importance of good attendance consistently outperformed others. Students gaining higher grade point averages have more accurate expectations of subject content and workload than others. The most common expectations that weren’t met involved levels of contact with academic staff and lack of opportunities to socialize with classmates. Those who had thought of leaving were more likely to quote multiple aspects of their courses not meeting their expectations.
  • The importance of attending lectures and reviewing notes were repeatedly stressed as important learning strategies. Advice to new students from returning students was mainly about time-management; regular attendance and keeping up with the work throughout the year, balancing studies and social life.
  • Students gaining higher grade point averages on course not only showed academic commitment in terms of time spent studying but also were likely to have more friends on their course. The balance between academic and social integration is fundamental to success in first year.
  • For those who had considered leaving, the overwhelming reason for staying was determination. We asked the returning students if they knew why their peers had left and it was thought that few had left due to financial issues, the most common reasons were related to wrong choice of course or inability to cope with the work. Those who had considered leaving had faced similar issues but they expressed strong determination to succeed.