Happiness is... sorting out worries promptly

Rare is the student who doesn't have a single concern. Make sure they know whom to talk to.
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The Independent Online

The student who arrives at university bright-eyed, loves the hall of residence, delights in the campus, adores the surrounding town or countryside and is stimulated by the course from start to finish is the oddity. The norm is to hate bits, love bits and worry often about whether this was the right course and whether it will deliver an interesting and lucrative future.

The student who arrives at university bright-eyed, loves the hall of residence, delights in the campus, adores the surrounding town or countryside and is stimulated by the course from start to finish is the oddity. The norm is to hate bits, love bits and worry often about whether this was the right course and whether it will deliver an interesting and lucrative future.

It is a problem for individual students but equally one of the biggest problems that universities face. Student drop-out causes expense and effort to universities. Three per cent drop out from the traditional universities, and up to 25 per cent from some of the newer ones, although this is partly because of modular courses, not unhappiness. One of the biggest causes of drop-out is choosing a wrong course or institution. One of the best ways of preventing drop-out is to deal with unhappiness quickly.

Mistakes are inevitable, even in the best-ordered systems. Nobody at 17 is certain what life will look like at 19 or 21 or 30. Sadly, the system only adds to the problems. When most people fill in their UCAS application forms, in the first year of the sixth form, their primary concerns are their AS-level studies and enjoying the freedoms of young adult life.

Their knowledge of available universities is limited, those advising them, be they teachers or parents or friends, tend to have fixed ideas about what is suitable and websites and brochures only tell a part of the story. There are only so many university open days any sixth former can attend and those have to be selected. On what criteria? Because your teacher loved it or your mum went there? Not useful, really.

Worse still, choosing in the rush of Clearing, when you have just failed to get the A-level results you needed, can result in serious mistakes. The wisest of sixth-form tutors advises taking several deep breaths before leaping. One regularly advises kids to consider a gap year or retakes, not just to rush to find another university.

To make matters worse, too many teachers tell you that getting the UCAS choice right is vital; this decision is for ever. Not so.

The upside is that university admissions tutors and faculty tutors plus the university and students union welfare services all expect some unhappiness. They are geared to advise and to facilitate change, if change is the answer, or to find ways of settling the student in, if staying put is the answer.

The real problems, as Alex Brown, head of health and welfare services at Plymouth University, says, is those who keep their unhappiness to themselves until it is too late.

The real answer is speedily to seek advice. The end result might be no change, it might be to tinker with the actual course. It might be to change disciplines within a university, even making a really radical shift between arts and humanities and the sciences. Broadening education at A-level should leave undergraduates with educational resources that will allow such radical changes of direction. It may be completely changing university.

The solution however, may be social, not academic. It might be to move to a more convivial hall of residence. University accommodation bureaux try to match the like-minded and provide a sufficient mix within halls for students to be able to find an amicable peer group, but it doesn't always work out perfectly first time.

Look around. Parents and friends are useful if problems arise, although parents can have drawbacks if they have unduly set ideas about what they want their children to achieve or if they worry too much.

The only advice worth hearing is the advice that asks, "Does it suit you?" If every fibre of your being is screaming "No", the chances of things improving are slight and the only sane answer is to sort things out fast. The longer you wait, the harder it is for both you and the university.

There is a consensus among admissions tutors that student loans are making it more difficult for students to change direction; if you drop out at the end of the first year you remain committed to the debt without any benefit to show from it, therefore students tend to carry on. The sensible answer would be to shift in the first week and use the loan properly.

If you are lost in a pit of misery in your first weeks, talk to as many people as you can. Your neighbours in hall probably think you are as confident and content as they seem to you. Talk. If that doesn't work, try the parents. Or your old head of sixth form. They are pretty used to unhappy people ringing. But also go looking for what the university has to offer.

The welfare services will have had stalls at the Freshers' Fair. You may have been too busy joining clubs to notice. The students union will have an office and someone geared to deal with welfare problems. They take on extra helpers in the first weeks for just such a reason. Your faculty will be expecting problems too. Your tutor knows that there will be students who will not like the course once they see the detail. They should be ready with suggestions.

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