Your student days are supposed to be the best days of your life - packed with fun and laughter and stimulating late-night discussions about the meaning of life. But are they? For a significant number, student life is disappointing: seminars are dull, lecturers are uninspired, accommodation is scruffy and the social life is either too hectic or not hectic enough.
Two new pieces of research commissioned by the higher education funding council, to be presented at a seminar sponsored by The Independent, show that students are dropping out because they are not prepared for university life. They had expected the academic side to be a breeze and the social life to be electric but manageable. They were disappointed.
As one drop-out put it: "I just spoke to friends at university and basically it sounded a laugh ... I thought it would be one big party. I heard that you really didn't have to do any work until the last year - it was party time. To begin with it was a party - but when the work started to come I was still partying, so I got behind. In the end, I never really managed to catch up."
Such experiences are typical of drop-outs aged 18 to 21 who went to university straight from school, according to research by Jenny Ozga, professor of education policy at Keele University, and researcher Dr Laura Sukhnandan. Traditional students receive their advice from teachers, family, and glossy university prospectuses. Another drop-out said: "I did look at the prospectus - to a degree, it was adequate. But they can't show you the grotty kitchen that you've got to share with 28 people."
In other words, their sources are outdated and inaccurate, based on a higher education system that existed 20 years ago but has now grown to bursting-point and encompasses many different institutions - the former polytechnics, the institutes of higher education, campus universities, civics and former colleges of advanced technology.
Mature students are better prepared. They often have friends in higher education and know what they are getting into. The conventionally aged student who drops out has tended to drift into higher education, saying, as one drop-out did, "It's what everyone else did - school friends. It was going to be better than doing a job."
For some, the reality of university can be a shock. They had imagined they would be attending an institution one step up from school, with better facilities and a more inspiring intellectual environment. Their mouths drop open on day one. One ex-student told the researchers that she wept when she saw her room. "I don't come from a big house," she said. "But I couldn't believe I had to share a bathroom and kitchen with 30 other people. And the size of my room was unbelievable, and it just had painted breeze-blocks. I never thought about what it would be like when my parents left."
These young people may not have gone so far as to have a Brideshead Revisited notion of what university would be like, but they had been looking forward to it through rose-tinted spectacles. The academic side can also be a disappointment to 18-year-olds who have been used to close relationships with teachers at school, with lots of nurturing and academic support, and find they get little of that in higher education.
"The lecturers just stood at the front and told you what they thought and then told you to go away and study on your own," said one drop-out. "They didn't get to know you, and you were constantly having to do things by yourself. It wasn't like A-level."
Another explained: "The course wasn't structured enough; it wasn't interesting, and it wasn't like what I'd done for A-levels ... my sociology tutor was terrible; his seminars were awful; no one understood anything."
The Keele researchers interviewed student drop-outs during one year, 1994-95, at three kinds of university - a campus, a civic and a new university. Drop-outs from campus universities (those in the middle of nowhere) sometimes found it claustrophobic and isolating. And male students often found it hard to acknowledge that they were having difficulties until it was too late, and they had failed a course.
Mature students who dropped out, by contrast, tended to do so for reasons unconnected with the university or their studies. They were forced to give up because of family illness, or problems with marriage and children.
Students who didn't drop out - who soldiered on and stayed until the bitter end - were interviewed, too. Again the researchers found disillusionment with university life: that it was not the enriching experience students had imagined, but a matter of making do with substandard facilities and less-than-brilliant teaching.
Are more students dropping out of higher education than ever before? No one knows for sure, because the figures that exist are thought to be an underestimate. According to the funding council, 4 to 5 per cent of English undergraduates - 30,000 people - are throwing in the towel each year.
That figure, however, does not include students who drop out at the end of a year; it records only those quitting during the academic year. That is why Hefce is now undertaking further research, following students over a three-year period. That way it can see what happens from year to year, and the extent to which students are moving from a university that doesn't suit them to one which does. In a report to be presented at the seminar, it adds: "Our initial results indicate that the actual non-completion rate may be as high as double the 4 to 5 per cent per year reported by the research teams."
At next week's seminar John Thompson, an analyst with Hefce, will explain the latest research findings and Professor Mantz Yorke, of the centre for higher education development at Liverpool John Moores University, will talk about his research into drop-outs, carried out in six higher education institutions in north-west England. He found that 39 per cent of drop-outs cited financial problems, in addition to complaints about poor teaching and having chosen the wrong course.
Such a finding chimes with vice-chancellors' views that financial difficulties are hitting students hard. The introduction of student loans, the freezing of grants and the policy of stopping students from claiming benefits have intensified pressure. That may get worse when grants are phased out and the pounds 1,000 annual tuition fee is introduced. Professor Yorke's research also showed that students from working-class homes were particularly likely to mention money as a reason for dropping out, and were less likely to re-enter higher education later. That suggests that the Government will have to keep a close watch on the effects of its funding reforms, says Prof Yorke.
He has calculated that the annual cost to the public purse of drop-outs is as much as pounds 91m, based on an estimate of the core funding for places from Hefce, tuition fees paid to institutions, and grants.
All the researchers believe universities could do more to prevent students from dropping out, by paying more attention to teaching and learning, making students feel valued, and improving guidance and support.
"This is an issue for vice-chancellors," says Professor Ozga. "It's a question of providing an environment in which students can talk about their difficulties without being penalised, and being open about what students can expect."
The seminar, `Non Completion: Assessing the Problem and Seeking Solutions' is being sponsored by `The Independent' and organised by the Society for Research into Higher Education.
It will take place on 3 February, 10.30am to 4pm, at One Great George Street Conference Centre, 1-7 Great George Street, London SW1P 3AA. For information call 0171 637-2766.
Ashamed, embarassed, I felt a sense of failure
"I went to a small private school and was expected by the school and my parents to move on to university. I favoured a campus university because of the community atmosphere and because I liked the idea of studying a range of courses before deciding on two subjects for a dual degree. After the university's open day, I was completely sold on the idea.
I imagined that university life would be a huge social whirl. When I arrived, I thought the campus was great but I felt anonymous and excluded. I had been used to a much smaller social world where I knew everyone. I also found it hard to make friends. But I think that was my fault rather than anything to do with the university. I felt there was a brilliant life going on somewhere that I just didn't know about.
With hindsight, I'm not sure I understood what the course involved before I embarked on it. I quickly felt out of my depth, unable to cope with lots of different subjects. I had been expecting it to follow on from A-levels and to know what was expected of me. But I lacked confidence and thought I wasn't up to the work. I didn't feel able to talk to my tutors. I became convinced I wouldn't pass my exams .
When I went home for the Christmas break, I found my best friend was withdrawing from university so I thought, `Perhaps it's not just me, perhaps it's OK to leave if I can't cope'. I telephoned the university to tell them of my decision to leave and was offered the chance to discuss it, but turned them down and snuck off ashamed and embarrassed. I felt a sense of failure and didn't think I would ever go back into higher education.
For the rest of that year, I worked in various jobs but realised that work wasn't what I wanted. I geared up again to apply to higher education, the lesser of two evils. I got into a civic university to study a single honours degree. Although the social life wasn't any better, I think I got better academic support because of lower staff-student ratios."
Case study based on an interview with the Keele University researchers.
DROP OUTS ... on work
"To begin with it was a party - but when the work started to come I was still partying, so I got behind. In the end, I never really managed to catch up."
"I did look at the prospectus. But they can't show you the grotty kitchen that you've got to share with 28 people."
"I wept when I saw the size of my room."
"The course wasn't structured enough ... it wasn't interesting ... my sociology tutor was terrible, his seminars were awful; no one understood anything."