Dropping out: it may be the smartest move

Alarming numbers of students are abandoning their courses before getting their degrees. Stephen Pritchard investigates why
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The Independent Online
By the time this year's intake of students reaches finals, close to one in five will have abandoned their courses. Put simply, this is equivalent to the population of two large civic universities abandoning their studies each year. The cost, to the individuals and the taxpayer, is huge.

Many drop out in this first term. Some go because they miss their girlfriends or boyfriends or their mums. Some cannot cope living on the bread line, others cannot cope with the work. Some are on the wrong course, others realise they are doing something to please their family that is not right for them.

As Ken Ewings, senior counsellor at Queen Mary and Westfield College, London, explains: "We see students who are on a course and hate it. When we ask why they are doing it, they say it is because their father wanted them to."

Department for Education and Employment figures for the academic year 1992-93, the latest figures available, put the drop-out rate at 17 per cent. Research by the Committee of Vice Chancellors and Principals (CVCP), published earlier this year, found that some 40,000 students left in the 1992-93 academic year, up nearly 25 per cent on the year before.

The CVCP figures divide students' reasons for leaving into academic - failing exams - and non-academic categories. In practice, the two often merge. Some students may simply not have been up to the demands of higher education, but others who are unhappy in other ways might let their work slip and eventually become an academic failure almost by default.

Non-academic withdrawals formed the fastest-growing group. Twenty-five thousand - up 30 per cent on 1991-92 - left for reasons including personal problems, financial hardship or dissatisfaction with a course. This, according to the CVCP, is twice as many as would be expected from the growth in student numbers alone.

With figures of this magnitude, it is surprising that there is no government research into the reasons; nor is there an official measure of the costs of dropping out.

Sue Clifford, assistant registrar for student services at Bangor, University of Wales, often sees 18- or 19-year-old students who went to university because it was expected of them, rather than because they really had their hearts set on a degree. "I find that among the younger students, quite often those who withdraw do so because they feel they were rushed into full-time education. They feel they haven't had the chance to decide that this is not for them," she says.

"For some people, the problems of adjusting to life away from home are so great that they don't feel able to make the effort to get through that transition, even though support is given to them."

At Sheffield Hallam, Geoff Layer, at the university's access and guidance unit, also sees students who feel they are on the wrong course or in the wrong city. This is especially common among people who come through clearing. Within a week of this year's intake arriving, he had seen three students who wanted to change course, before teaching had even started. One felt there was too much maths in his degree.

Sheffield Hallam is one of a number of universities to have carried out follow-up research with students who leave. Its Retention Rates Research Project, published in January this year, interviewed students from the schools of science, cultural studies, leisure and food management and the combined studies programme, who had quit in the 1993-94 session.

The research found that most students leave early, 72 per cent quitting during the first semester. When asked to list the primary reason for dropping out, 44 per cent of students cited an unsuitable course, 19 per cent personal reasons and 16 per cent academic problems. When asked for all reasons, 41 per cent again said they disliked the course, 17 per cent mentioned personal reasons, and 11 per cent academic difficulties, while 11 per cent gave financial problems as a factor and 6 per cent accommodation.

A number were disappointed with the style of teaching at the university. They had not expected so many lectures, or such large classes. Many found the relationship with tutors impersonal. Research at other institutions and anecdotal evidence from students suggests that many applicants have an unrealistic picture of university education, more in keeping with an Oxbridge college or the film Educating Rita.

But as the Sheffield Hallam research points out, if students were just unhappy with a course, they could have transferred. It suggests that withdrawal is far more likely when social and academic factors combine.

Not all give up when they hit the pits. In one case, a student came to Mr Layer in a depressed state and was set to leave; after the weekend, he had changed his mind. "I saw him on a Friday," he recalls. "He had been here 36 hours, and was all for going home. On Monday, he came back and said he had had a great time, and was staying."

The crucial link between advice services and students remains the tutor. Many academics say they can no longer give students as much time as they would like, because of the pressure of numbers. As one lecturer with experience of Oxbridge explains: "Some classes are so large that it is difficult to get to grips with students' names before Christmas.

"Different universities have different types of staff-student contact. In some cases, you have one tutorial per seminar, or two a year. Under the three-term system, that would have been 10 a year and in Oxbridge, 30 a year."

The vast majority of students who leave do want to return to higher education. But there will always be cases where, despite the best support, dropping out is the best option for an individual. As Ken Ewings, at Queen Mary and Westfield College, puts it: "Some people make the decision to leave, and it might be right for them to do so, rather than staying on and being really unhappy."

Advice for the miserable student

* Tackle problems early and make use of the support that is available.

* Don't suffer alone. Often, fellow students will have similar worries, especially at the start .

* Seek out tutors. Most will do their best to help .

* Don't avoid the issue. Letting work pile up is tempting, if a course is unsuitable. But departments are more likely to grant a transfer to someone who appears to be trying.

* Don't neglect the social side. A tough patch in a course can seem less daunting if there is something else to look forward to.

* Don't dismiss your worries as too trivial.

Sally Cocks, aged 22, started an HND course in travel and tourism at Bradford and Ilkely College. She left the course after the Easter break in her first year.

Sally admits that she rushed into choosing the course. "I left it a bit late in the year for applications," she says. "But I wanted to go into higher education. The course was something I was interested in."

She hoped to transfer from the HND to a degree after the first year. But the college failed to meet her expectations. Classes were dominated by younger students, who were less interested in work. "I was nearly 21 when I went to college," she says. "Most other students were just out of school, and the gap was noticeable."

Staff responded with a very rigid teaching approach. "It was like we were still at school doing GCSEs," she says. Groups were large, and lecturers did not differentiate between students who needed close supervision and those who could work alone.

By Easter, she was under pressure financially and unhappy with the support from the college and the lack of rapport with teaching staff. She claims that her tutors first started to take her complaints seriously when she threatened to leave.

Helen Barber, 23, studied three-dimensional design at Sunderland University. She left her course in the second term of her second year.

Helen's main complaint was with the limited resources available. First- year students had no private space for storage or work. Materials were also in short supply. "It was really obvious that they were scrimping and saving," she explains.

Her tutors convinced her to stay after the first year, despite her reservations. Although there was more space in the second year, she was still unhappy with the teaching. "Tuition was quite close, but it wasn't constructive," she says. "They never said when work was good." Tutors also required long hours, including evening lectures.

By the second year, Helen felt the course was putting her off art altogether. Financial pressures made her less motivated to carry on. Her tutors insisted that she drop outside interests or leave the course.

Finally she was prompted to leave by a study visit to Prague: she found Czech students enjoyed far better facilities.

She is now taking A-levels at night school.

"Education is more suited to people who are older," she says. "You are better able to ignore petty grievances."

Rupert Pearn, 21, studied aerospace engineering at Manchester University for two terms before abandoning his course. He is now in the second year of a photography degree at Manchester Metropolitan University.

"I had always thought I was going to be an engineer, and my family thought so, too," he recalls. He found the engineering course hard but kept up with it before realising engineering was not for him.

He felt unable to approach his tutors to discuss his feelings. The relationship was very formal; staff expected to be addressed by their academic titles. "I could approach them with a problem with stresses on an aeroplane wing but not about being unhappy." When he started to skip lectures, tutors wrote to his parents rather than approach him.

Class sizes accentuated the problems. There were 86 in Rupert's group, and tutors had not learnt all the names by Easter. He was also put off by the huge lectures: the biggest were attended by 400 students. Rupert was not aware of confidential advice services on campus. Instead, he confided in a teacher from his old school, who supported his decision to leave. He claims the department did little to encourage him to stay, or advise him on alternative study options.