When a little fraud is less painful than failure: Being thrown out of university is easy, telling your parents isn't. Imogen Edwards-Jones writes from experience

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Indy Lifestyle Online
WHEN I was thrown out of the French department at Bristol University, it took me almost a term to tell my parents that their daughter was no longer doing a joint honours degree, and then at least another couple of weeks to convince them that single honours did not mean 'half a degree'.

I was so terrified of their reaction to my failure that I debated never telling them at all. In the end I decided to wait, bite the bullet and pick my moment.

Samantha Fox, the Swansea University student who went missing last week after being expelled from university and keeping it secret from her parents, was obviously in a worse state. Samantha had ignored repeated warnings about her failure to attend lectures and all invitations to explain herself to the dean. Although she was found safe and well in London on Monday, she had kept her secret from her family and friends for more than three months and had gone through the motions of going back to university to start a new term rather than confront them.

It is not clear whether Samantha deserved her expulsion, but her case is not that unusual. While I was at Bristol there were many students who had been sent down for failing exams but who continued to return year after year. Just as people who have lost their jobs keep up a pretend routine of getting dressed for the office, leaving the house and coming back at the same time every day, as if they were still going to work, so these students continued to turn up at the university rather than tell their parents.

Most did this out of fear of their parents' reaction. It is hard to disappoint those who have made sacrifices so that you can attend university in the first place. Others did it because it was easier to continue living a lie than to face up to the reality that they had wasted one, two or three years of their lives and that they were no better qualified than when they had left school after A-levels. Most of these students had, in the past, been rather good at passing exams and found the failure a bitter pill to swallow.

One friend, in the year below me, was studying history. He was asked to leave after he failed his first-year exams, but returned for his second year. He continued to study on his own, more out of habit than anything else, and he eventually secured a place at the polytechnic down the road, only to be asked to leave after failing his second-year exams. He returned to Bristol for a third year, which he spent living in the city, but attending no courses. When his parents came for the weekend, his flat mates would construct bogus timetables, plastering them prominently up on the sitting-room wall. He would create fictitious problems with tutors and talk about his various courses with feigned interest. His parents still don't know that he never passed his degree.

Another friend, who was studying geography at Bristol, completed the course but never sat his degree, having confused the dates of his finals. When his parents asked when they would be going to his graduation ceremony, rather than own up, he told them such events existed only at Oxford and Cambridge. They still have no idea that their son is not a graduate. Another friend found the pressure of university too much and disappeared one Saturday afternoon. Her parents had no idea that she was unhappy until she was eventually discovered in London. She underwent therapy and returned to Bristol a year later to complete her course.

Janet Newman, from the Missing Persons Bureau, an independent London- based charity, said her organisation deals with numerous cases of students who go missing through pressure or failure at university. The numbers increase towards the summer, the exam period and the end of the first year.

'It's probably the first time many of these students have left home and they are often a long way from where they grew up. Once they arrive at university they are expected to become adults very quickly, managing their own money and motivating themselves academically,' she said.

'It is an enormous pressure to be under at a young age and many of them feel, as soon as one thing goes wrong, that their problems are insurmountable. They do a little thinking, feel like they're drowning, walk out and go missing. Most of the time they turn up.'

Ms Newman added: 'Many of them probably fib a little about how much they are doing when they talk to their parents, without really thinking about it.'

She believes that the universities should take greater care of their students, especially in the first year.

The National Union of Students agreed. 'We would hope that the welfare officers would pick up on any problems but students are under increasing pressure. We hope that some sort of support would be provided.'

But as universities are now on the open market, competing for students and money, the problem is less and less likely to be dealt with. 'Finances are stretched and figures for the number of students who fail are hard to get hold of,' said a spokesman from the NUS.

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