Should Universities monitor the attendance of their students?


(Photo credit Mikecogh - CC-BY-NC-SA)

I’ve noticed an increase in interest in attendance monitoring in Universities recently, probably not unrelated to the UKBA’s withdrawal of London Metropolitan University’s trusted sponsor status. Throughout my career in HE, both as a student and staff, attendance has never really been compulsory, certainly not at lectures.  Yet, there’s some evidence in the literature that students aren’t completely opposed to the idea. (Though they’re not wildly enthusiastic either.)  See for example

NEWMAN-FORD, L., FITZGIBBON, K., LLOYD, S. and THOMAS, S., 2008. A large-scale investigation into the relationship between attendance and attainment: a study using an innovative, electronic attendance monitoring system. Studies in Higher Education, 33(6), pp. 699-717.


MUIR, J., 2009. Student attendance: Is it important, and What Do Students Think? CEBE Transactions, 6(2), pp. 50-69

Those are relatively small scale studies (There don’t seem to be any large scale studies, or if there are, I’ve missed them.)  Outside the literature too, there’s some evidence that the issue is becoming significant. A web trawl found this post on a hyperlocal news blog in Newcastle which, when you look at the results doesn’t quite support the writer’s claim of “overwhelming rejection”.   The rejection is of one particular model of monitoring. It would be very interesting to know how many other student unions have held similar referenda (and how they turned out).  There’s also an interesting case in Texas where a school student has recently lost her case against her school district using an RFID chip to monitor her attendance.

To get back to HE though I did do a crude trawl of every UK university web site, to get a sense of what institutions were doing, and there are a small number of institutions (South Bank, Huddersfield, East London, and ironically enough, London Metropolitan) that do claim to have active electronic monitoring systems in place, although much more detailed research would be needed to assess the extent to which they are deployed in practice. There were a great many more institutions whose web sites linked to policy statements and papers which implied that they should do something about it. Over half the sites were silent on the topic, although web sites are a very limited source of data.

But, if this is a reaction to the Border Agency, it seems something of an over-reaction. I had a look at the Border Agency’s web site and they don’t require institutions to monitor attendance in the sort of detail that the South Bank system seems to be able to facilitate. All they require is that students are monitored at particular points in their academic career.

I’m not implying here that any institution is reacting inappropriately to the UKBA.   There are good reasons to monitor student attendance.  The articles I mention above draw on literature that suggests the existence of a correlation between attendance and academic attainment, although one would expect that stronger students would be more likely to attend classes. More compellingly it would certainly generate a great deal of useful planning data for universities, and I suspect it would “encourage” students to attend. While monitoring attendance of students is not the same as compelling them to attend,  the existence of a monitoring programme would likely give the impression of compulsion. (And there are strong arguments against compulsion, which I will not rehearse here, except to point out that some elements of an educational experience are inherently compulsory. You can’t be assessed if you don’t present yourself, or at least your work, for assessment.)

It should also be acknowledged that a University education consists of rather more than lectures and seminars, which also raises some interesting questions. Should art schools monitor time spent in studios? What about virtual education? Does logging into the computer count as attending? Why not, if physical presence is the only measure of attendance in the “real” world? After all it’s quite possible to be physically present and mentally absent, as I can testify from personal experience. This is clearly a topic around which I’m going to have to put my thoughts in order. If anyone is doing any research in this area, please do comment.




Should universities monitor student attendance?

The recent withdrawal of Highly Trusted Sponsor Status by the United Kingdom Border Agency (UKBA) from London Metropolitan University  in September 2012 has raised some questions in my mind about practices surrounding attendance monitoring in higher education. Let’s be clear about this though. London Met lost its status because it had, according to the UKBA sponsored students who did not have leave to remain in the UK, not primarily,  because it was failing to record attendance. (Although press reports imply that it was in fact failing to do so)

Nevertheless, it is a requirement of the UKBA that universities who wish to sponsor students on a visa must make two “checkpoints” (re-registrations) within any rolling 12 month periods and to report any student who misses 10 consecutive expected contacts without reasonable permission from the institution. Any such report must be made within 10 days of the 10th expected contact. The nature of such contacts is left to the institution although the UKBA suggests as examples, attending lectures, tutorials, seminars, submitting any coursework, attending any examination, meetings with supervisors, registration or meeting with welfare support. In order to ensure compliance sponsors may be asked to complete a spreadsheet showing the details of each student sponsored and their attendance. This spreadsheet must be provided within 21 days of the request being made (UKBA, 2012). (Taken from accessed 17/09/12)

As I said, at the start of the post, this raises some questions in my mind. I’ve had a longish career in higher education, but, apart from those courses which are sponsored by external bodies, notably the NHS it is actually rather rare in my experience for student attendance to be consistently monitored. It may not have been an issue. Students are adults after all, and perfectly free not to take up what they have paid for, and there appear to be few empirical studies of attendance monitoring in the United Kingdom. There is, in contrast, a huge literature on retention, unsurprising given the cost of early withdrawal to both institutions and students, and one would expect that failure to attend teaching events is an obvious early warning sign.  Most scholarly attention seems to have been focussed on establishing the extent of a correlation between attendance and student performance, which does seem to exist (Colby, 2004).  There has never been a consistent sector wide approach to monitoring the attendance at classes of students enrolled on University degree and post degree courses. The border agency farrago seems to me to have raised the importance of this issue for he following reasons:


  • If universities only monitor the attendance of overseas students they could be accused of discriminating against them, or, if Colby is correct about a correlation, in favour of them.
  • If that correlation does exist then it is in universities interests as organisations, to monitor attendance since better performance from students will give them higher positions in university league tables, making them more attractive to potential students.
  • For that reason, it ought to be in the interests of their students to have their attendance monitored, or, more accurately to have their absences noted and investigated. As far as I know, there has never been a large scale sector wide survey of attendance monitoring practices. (Possibly because there aren’t very many such practices.)


I have carried out a very preliminary survey of every UK university web site to see what in fact Universities are doing  about attendance monitoring. This should be regarded with extreme caution. I haven’t included the full findings here because web sites are not definitive proof and it is not possible to draw any firm conclusions. Just because a university does not publish its attendance policy does not mean it does not have one. The reason for doing the web site survey was to get a sense of the extent of the problem and indicate a potential sampling strategy to identify areas for further detailed research.  Bearing that in mind, it appears that  nearly all of them delegate responsibility for attendance monitoring to individual  departments. About half claim to have any sort of university wide attendance policy, and the content of these policies very dramatically (but even so, departments are still responsible for implementing) but only a very small number actively monitor attendance for all or most students. Practices vary from occasional attendance weeks where pretty much everything is monitored during those weeks (Durham), to advanced technological systems which read student cards (London South Bank).  Here at Lincoln practice appears to be sporadic. Many colleagues use paper sign-in sheets, something we do in my own department, but it is fairly unusual for this data to be entered into any sort of database.  It seems to be filed away somewhere, and ultimately, thrown away, which seems a rather strange practice!

So the answer to my question in the title is “I don’t know, but there does appear to be a case to investigate it further”.



Colby, J. 2004. Attendance and Attainment, 5th Annual Conference of the Information and Computer Sciences – Learning and Teaching Support Network (ICS-LTSN), 31 August–2 September, University of Ulster. (accessed 15/10/2012)