'Life was really very lonely'

Many students arrive at university full of hope - then drop out when they find only isolation. By Camilla Francis
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It does not surprise me that so many students are dropping out of higher education, at considerable expense to the taxpayer, if my experiences of university life are anything to go by.

On the bleak October Sunday morning that I arrived, the campus resembled something of a concrete monstrosity nestling in the windswept and barren fields of the South Downs (when I looked around the university, it had been summer and bathed in a mass of foliage and sunlight).

The hall in which I was staying was as aesthetically pleasing (and about as hospitable) as some hastily erected army barracks. Trudging past the disgruntled porter, I made my way up the stairs to my room, past the youth who was telephoning home to inform his parents that he would "give it a week".

Cheered by such enthusiasm, I opened my door to reveal a musty, sparsely furnished room which was in a state of disrepair as well as in poor decorative taste. Bidding my parents farewell, I set about making the room as cosy and liveable as I could.

After this, I attempted to find other people to get to know and went down to the television room, the likes of which I would not have hoped to find inside one of Her Majesty's prisons. With vandalised chairs in rows in front of a television that was nailed to the wall, needless to say the room was empty.

Things did not improve. The freshers' events, which aimed to bring students together, were badly organised and poorly attended. Most of the people on my corridor were much younger than me, and the age difference was noticeable.

I did not have much luck in meeting people on my course, either, because with only two and a half hours a week of tuition time and no supporting lectures, contact time with fellow students was at best limited. Tuition was also in very small groups, sometimes just four or five - but even then the benefits of such small-group teaching were not apparent when at the end of term my tutor still had no idea what my name was.

At weekends, campus was terribly isolating; many students went home and with everything closed there was very little to occupy one's time - and with so few hours of teaching, that was problem enough during the week.

To ease the tedium, I went to aerobics three times a week and taught myself to touch-type, using a tutorial package at the computer centre. I was also lucky in that I did make one very good friend, an American girl of my age who was on an exchange programme. I did, however, feel quite ashamed that our education system seemed to be particularly inadequate when compared with that of the United States.

It was a relief to realise that I wasn't the only one to have become so disillusioned with university, as I met more and more students who were dissatisfied and who appeared to be dropping out with alarming regularity. Life was really very lonely; it wasn't even a question of being homesick, as I had completed my A-levels at a residential course away from home.

Nor did I expect to be spoon-fed, but if I stayed behind after a tutorial to ask for help I was made to feel that the tutor had far more pressing concerns; I gave up after the time I was very rudely ushered out of the door having outstayed my one-minute welcome.

Several times I tried to change course but was sent from pillar to post, only to be told that there weren't enough places. Other students appalled by the lack of pastoral care made complaints, and their similarly disgusted parents wrote letters.

By the end of the first year, I was thankful for the summer and actually decided to leave. However, after failing to find a place at another university because of my late application and the limited places available, I felt impelled to reverse my decision. I need a degree to enter the career I want.

This year, I am not living on campus and fortunately some extra tutoring has been organised. I do not want to paint an unnecessarily grim picture of university life: some tutors were genuinely concerned about my welfare and willing to help with academic problems, but these were the exceptions rather than the rule.

The psychotherapy unit was also a bastion of support for those in need, but not enough to convince those who were unhappy with their courses, and experiencing financial as well as personal problems, to stay.

My brother, in contrast, started university last autumn and is really enjoying himself. It seems to me that further education is something of a gamble. When you make that final decision, even if you have read the prospectus from cover to cover and looked round the institution, there is still no way of knowing what it will really be like until you get there. By which time, of course, it is often too late.

Sometimes if you have made a mistake it can be rectified by changing course or institution, but often problems with places and fees or grants can frustrate such attempts.

I don't feel that it is wise for students to drop out and forfeit a degree that they are clearly capable of, and which may ultimately cheat them of their chosen career. But neither do I feel it is wise to stay and risk three years of misery. It is a pity that this is the stark choice that faces those who find themselves in this increasingly common predicament.