Education: Adjusting to a new environment

If things go wrong in the first few weeks of term, it is possible to sort things out, says Lucy Hodges
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Indy Lifestyle Online
The likelihood is that your child will settle in to university fairly easily. They may be homesick for a week or two, but after that they'll make friends, go to lectures and seminars, find a part-time job and enjoy life most of the time. But what to do if they don't? Here are some things that can go wrong, and what to do about them.

ON THE WRONG COURSE?

It's not uncommon for students to find they don't like the course that they have selected from the glossy prospectus. Parts of it may be horrendously difficult or dull, or it may just not be what they had expected. But make sure it really is the course your youngster doesn't like - and not something else.

It helps if they make up their mind quite quickly that they made the wrong choice. The longer they leave a decision the more difficult it'll be to switch. And it would be sad to delay deciding and then find they are stuck for three years with a subject they don't really care for.

Most universities and colleges will be reasonably sympathetic to requests for a transfer within their institution - they want to keep their students. If the student has decided that they want to shift courses, they need to talk to a member of the academic staff first. Later they could also consult a student counsellor, who may be able to advise on any possible financial implications, and a careers adviser, who should be able to indicate any change to the outcome of their change.

A course transfer can be sorted out very quickly. Switching, say, between sociology and psychology should be easy - they probably won't need to miss a year - but switching from one of those subjects to computer science might be more difficult, and they might find they have to start from scratch again. That's why the experts advise making up their mind in the first four to six weeks of term. That way they should suffer minimum financial penalties.

If the student is receiving support from their local authority for their fees, they can usually benefit from the False Start scheme that enables them to make a switch in their first year without suffering financially as a result.

Don't mistake homesickness for the wrong course. Many 18-year-olds suffer acute misery as they adjust to a new place on their first time away from home with an unfamiliar culture and no mum to wash their clothes and cook them their favourite meals. Young people can be very disoriented for a while. So, try to figure out whether your child is just missing home badly, or really is looking for a change.

AT THE WRONG COLLEGE?

It's more difficult to transfer between institutions but it is not impossible. Quite a few students do it. This may be because they found the university they chose is too suburban or is too urban; or maybe they were disappointed by the teaching or the standard of the course. Don't leave it too late, but at the same time it is important not to rush such a momentous decision.

Once they have decided they want to change universities, they need to choose where to go. They should find prospectuses of other institutions in the student services centre library, or equivalent. Once they've picked an alternative, they need to talk to an admissions officer and see if there is a place, and also contact an academic staff member. If she or he is sufficiently impressed by the student's A-levels and other work, they may well be offered a place. Then, it's probably plain sailing.

Remember, however, that students are extremely unlikely to be accepted on to a course for which they would not have been accepted the first time round.

WRONG PLACE TO LIVE

If they don't like where they're living, they should talk first to the warden of their hall of residence and then to the accommodation office. Some universities have a wide range of student lodgings - single rooms with or without bathrooms, single rooms with or without food, flats with kitchens and so on. So they should be able to find alternative accommodation. But there's a shortage in the big cities, particularly London, and they will find the choice there much more restricted.

If they're having a problem getting along with their flatmates, accommodation offices can probably help too. John Martin, director of student affairs at Strathclyde University, says there's quite a bit of moving around each year as extroverts move to be with other extroverts, and introverts with introverts.

Things are more problematic if a student wants to move out of hall into a private flat as they'll have signed a legal contract for the room. If the student can find someone to take over the room - and pay the rent - the university will usually then release them from the contract.

FINANCIAL FIRST AID

There is real concern that some first years may turn up at university this autumn with no money, because of abolition of the grant and the introduction of means testing on part of the student loan, which may slow up the processing of loans.

However, if students arrive with a copy of the application form for their student loan and for remittance of the tuition fee, they should then have no problem borrowing money from the university or from the student union.

Strathclyde University gives short-term loans of up to pounds 300. If there are more serious, long-term problems, students can apply to the Access Fund - which all universities maintain - and can thereby tap into a grant of up to pounds 3,000 to help with things such as childcare costs.

All students should have opened a bank account by the time they start at university. Banks, as we all know, are only too happy to lend them money. So, students who are short of cash at first would be well advised to take out a bank loan.

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