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Quitting? don't burn your boats

Students who leave their courses should make sure they don't lose out financially, says Justin Crozier
Apart from frequent hangovers and occasional essay crises, student life seems a comfortable way to spend three or four years in pursuit of a highly regarded qualification. But, according to Department of Education figures, 17 per cent of students drop out of their courses before finishing. As their first term draws to a close, many undergraduates will be worrying whether they are doing the right thing.

The burden of course work can be overwhelming. A recent survey at Glasgow Caledonian University cited course work, particularly continual assessment, as the main source of stress in student life. Gavin, who was studying medicine, found that socialising was almost impossible because of his heavy workload. "Most of my friends were doing courses that were based around a few lectures and an essay every week. There just wasn't enough time to enjoy myself and keep up with work at the labs. I used to stay up working on Pro-Plus most nights. I ended up having re-sits for my first- year exams, but decided not to take them because I didn't want to go back and face that sort of pressure again."

But according to the Committee of Vice Chancellors and Principals, 60 per cent of students who drop out do so for non-academic reasons. Georgina Newton, of Reading University Student Advice Centre, says many come to university because of the expectations of their school and parents, rather than through their own choice. "A lot of people quickly find that university life is not right for them, or not right for them at the moment."

Money becomes extremely important when you are unsure whether you are doing the right thing. An average debt of more than pounds 2,000 on graduating puts the value of the degree into very sharp focus. There are also the considerable worries of having enough money to get through each term. The NUS estimates that one in four students considers dropping out because of financial pressure.

For those who go to university in big cities, the distractions of urban living can make studying seem unimportant. Kamran Bashir, who abandoned a physics degree in his third year at Imperial College, says that London life was a major factor in this: "Going to university in a big city is a real eye-opener. Once you step outside the union bar, you meet a lot more people doing all sorts of things, and your course isn't such a big deal any more - it's not the be-all and end-all."

Since he left university, Kamran has drifted between a variety of low- paid jobs, working as a cycle courier and as a barman, and doing temporary office work. A former international schoolboy rower, he is now working part time as a rowing coach, but is unsure about his future: "I've really no idea. I may well even end up back at university doing something else." Kamran realises that going back to study will be expensive. He has already had to repay half a year's fees from his third year, and will have to fund himself through any future course. So does he have any regrets about leaving his course in the first place? "I don't regret giving up physics, because it's certainly not at all what I want to do. But I wish I'd known what I really wanted to do when I originally applied for university entrance, and hadn't thrown away my tuition fees on a course that I wasn't interested in."

Georgina Newton stresses that timing is crucial for those considering quitting. "If you're going to drop out, you have to do it within 20 weeks of the start of your course if you want to be eligible for tuition fees and a grant for any future degree. We often see people thinking about leaving at the beginning of the summer term, when it's a much more serious decision; they won't get funding in the future, should they want to return to study."

But she acknowledges that there are instances when leaving a course can be a good move. "If you have something specific to do in a particular field where it's a now-or-never chance, it can be worth taking the opportunity while it's there, even if it means interrupting or aborting your degree. We had one girl who wanted to act, and who left midway through her course because she had the opportunity to get her Equity card."

Simon Lloyd is another who put a significant opportunity before continuing his degree. He was at Oxford studying Chemistry, and excelling academically, having been awarded a college scholarship after his first-year exams in 1995, when he decided to leave to work as financial controller of Sentanta Records, a rock label whose acts include Edwyn Collins and The Divine Comedy. "I had been working for Sentanta at the weekends since 1991, and this year looked to be the year when it was all going to happen, as indeed it turned out. It's been great, with parties all the time, and I've been all over Europe and to the States, as well as to the Brit Awards. College have been really understanding about it and have left the door open for me to come back."

Thinking about dropping out? Points you should consider:

l If you are worried about your course, it's best to talk to someone straightaway. Every university has a student welfare officer who will treat all enquiries confidentially.

l Be aware of time limits. You have 20 weeks after starting if you want to preserve state funding for any future course, if you decide to leave. However, if you stay within the system, you can transfer to another university or course within 16 months of starting and still get funding, even if you have to start the new course from the beginning.

l Ultimately, it should be your own decision. It's better to pull out early on and have the option of going back, than to persevere in order to satisfy the expectations of others