Unprepared and disillusioned: 60,000 student drop-outs

There have always been university drop-outs. But research to be presented at a seminar sponsored by `The Independent' next week suggests numbers could be much higher than previously thought - as many as 60,000 a year. They go for many reasons - financial and personal - but many feel let down by the experience of university life, wasting an estimated pounds 91m of taxpayers' money every year. What should be done?

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In other words, their sources are outdated and inaccurate, based on a higher education system that existed 20 years ago but has now grown to bursting-point and encompasses many different institutions -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."

Voices
Mosul dam was retaken with the help of the US
voicesRobert Fisk: Barack Obama is following the jihadists’ script
Arts and Entertainment
Loaded weapon: drugs have surprise side effects for Scarlett Johansson in Luc Besson’s ‘Lucy’
filmReview: Lucy, Luc Besson's complex thriller
News
A cleaner prepares the red carpet for the opening night during the 59th International Cannes Film Festival May 17, 2006 in Cannes, France.
newsPowerful vacuum cleaners to be banned under EU regulations
News
people
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
News
ebooksAn evocation of the conflict through the eyes of those who lived through it
News
A polar bear’s diet is rich in seal blubber and half of its own body weight is composed of fat
i100
Life and Style
fashion David Beckham fronts adverts for his underwear collection
Travel
Flocking round: Beyoncé, Madame Tussauds' latest waxwork, looking fierce in the park
travelIn a digital age when we have more access than ever to the stars, why are waxworks still pulling in crowds?
Arts and Entertainment
Jeremy Clarkson has rejected criticisms of his language, according to BBC director of television Danny Cohen
tv
Extras
indybest
Arts and Entertainment
Judi Dench appeared at the Hay Festival to perform excerpts from Shakespearean plays
tvJudi Dench and Hugh Bonneville join Benedict Cumberbatch in BBC Shakespeare adaptations
Arts and Entertainment
tv
Sport
Is this how Mario Balotelli will cruise into Liverpool?
football
Independent
Travel Shop
the manor
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on city breaks Find out more
santorini
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on chic beach resorts Find out more
sardina foodie
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on country retreats Find out more
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs Education

Trainee Recruitment Consultant

£20000 - £25000 per annum + OTE £40,000: SThree: SThree Group have been well e...

EYFS Teacher

£120 - £162 per day: Randstad Education Hull: Randstad Education require an ex...

Year 3 Teacher

£120 - £162 per day: Randstad Education Hull: Year 3 primary supply teacher ne...

SEN Teacher

£100 - £120 per day: Randstad Education Bristol: Supply special educational ne...

Day In a Page

Air strikes? Talk of God? Obama is following the jihadists’ script

Air strikes? Talk of God? Obama is following the jihadists’ script

The President came the nearest he has come yet to rivalling George W Bush’s gormless reaction to 9/11 , says Robert Fisk
Ebola outbreak: Billy Graham’s son declares righteous war on the virus

Billy Graham’s son declares righteous war on Ebola

A Christian charity’s efforts to save missionaries trapped in Africa by the crisis have been justifiably praised. But doubts remain about its evangelical motives
Jeremy Clarkson 'does not see a problem' with his racist language on Top Gear, says BBC

Not even Jeremy Clarkson is bigger than the BBC, says TV boss

Corporation’s head of television confirms ‘Top Gear’ host was warned about racist language
Nick Clegg the movie: Channel 4 to air Coalition drama showing Lib Dem leader's rise

Nick Clegg the movie

Channel 4 to air Coalition drama showing Lib Dem leader's rise
Philip Larkin: Misogynist, racist, miserable? Or caring, playful man who lived for others?

Philip Larkin: What will survive of him?

Larkin's reputation has taken a knocking. But a new book by James Booth argues that the poet was affectionate, witty, entertaining and kind, as hitherto unseen letters, sketches and 'selfies' reveal
Madame Tussauds has shown off its Beyoncé waxwork in Regent's Park - but why is the tourist attraction still pulling in the crowds?

Waxing lyrical

Madame Tussauds has shown off its Beyoncé waxwork in Regent's Park - but why is the tourist attraction still pulling in the crowds?
Texas forensic astronomer finally pinpoints the exact birth of impressionism

Revealed (to the minute)

The precise time when impressionism was born
From slow-roasted to sugar-cured: how to make the most of the British tomato season

Make the most of British tomatoes

The British crop is at its tastiest and most abundant. Sudi Pigott shares her favourite recipes
10 best men's skincare products

Face it: 10 best men's skincare products

Oscar Quine cleanses, tones and moisturises to find skin-savers blokes will be proud to display on the bathroom shelf
Malky Mackay allegations: Malky Mackay, Iain Moody and another grim day for English football

Mackay, Moody and another grim day for English football

The latest shocking claims do nothing to dispel the image that some in the game on these shores exist in a time warp, laments Sam Wallace
La Liga analysis: Will Barcelona's hopes go out of the window?

Will Barcelona's hopes go out of the window?

Pete Jenson starts his preview of the Spanish season, which begins on Saturday, by explaining how Fifa’s transfer ban will affect the Catalans
Middle East crisis: We know all too much about the cruelty of Isis – but all too little about who they are

We know all too much about the cruelty of Isis – but all too little about who they are

Now Obama has seen the next US reporter to be threatened with beheading, will he blink, asks Robert Fisk
Neanderthals lived alongside humans for centuries, latest study shows

Final resting place of our Neanderthal neighbours revealed

Bones dated to 40,000 years ago show species may have died out in Belgium species co-existed
Scottish independence: The new Scots who hold fate of the UK in their hands

The new Scots who hold fate of the UK in their hands

Scotland’s immigrants are as passionate about the future of their adopted nation as anyone else
Britain's ugliest buildings: Which monstrosities should be nominated for the Dead Prize?

Blight club: Britain's ugliest buildings

Following the architect Cameron Sinclair's introduction of the Dead Prize, an award for ugly buildings, John Rentoul reflects on some of the biggest blots on the UK landscape