Joan Bakewell: A university drop-out is a sign of a wider failure

Friday 22 February 2008 01:00

It isn't meant to be like this! Students dropping out of university are defying all efforts and expenditure to persuade them to stay. What's going wrong?

The move to becoming a university student is one of life's most momentous shifts: it is a significant move towards greater freedom, enjoyed in the company of your own generation, with responsibility for your own finances, and the deployment of your own time. If you're studying something you enjoy, the rewards of concentrated opportunities to browse, listen and debate will never come your way again.

There's space, too, to kick over the traces, learn how to handle drink, drugs and sex – or not – to pit yourself against your peers, and forge friendships that can last a lifetime. It is hard to imagine such an intensity of living and learning again, and at just the time when your intelligence and personality are ripe for it.

So why are some 22 per cent failing to complete their courses? The government would like to know because five years ago they gave the universities £800m to find out why and stem the haemorrhage. They have failed. They have tried increased personal attention, and they have examined the reasons students give for dropping out. And still some 100,000 quit within a year.

There will always be some individuals who find university is not for them. The novelist JG Ballard tells of how he found it too cliquish and detached from the world he already knew. Some students simply discover they've been sold something they don't want. Careers advisers got it wrong. We live in a return and refund society. And they want to go back on their decision. Except in education there's no refund.

Sometimes parental pressure plays in here too. What a wonderful achievement it is for parents when their child gets a cherished place at uni – the crowning reward for all that encouragement, the effort to find the right school rewarded at last. For less well-off families who have foregone the extra income that a working teenager can bring in, it is all the more galling when they give up before the end.

There are indications that universities' efforts to cast their recruitment net wider are hauling in candidates who will find the going hard. Former polytechnics and colleges of higher education have the best record in offering degree courses to youngsters from underprivileged backgrounds. But sadly they have the worst staying-on rates. It's perfectly understandable. Where going to university isn't part of the culture in which you live, staying on needs powerful determination. Imagine one of the Gallagher family from Shameless landing at Cambridge. Remember Educating Rita. At some level class barriers are as rigid as ever.

The imperative for all colleges to keep up their numbers in order to keep up their finance may well incline them to take on students who aren't truly committed to the full three-year term. A degree course calls for sustained effort. If you enjoy the subject, there's nothing more rewarding. But if you don't, why bother to slog on. Students may well be enrolling for subjects of which they know little and which are an immediate disappointment.

A university degree isn't the be all and end all of education. A major-general in the army told me recently that he had wanted to be a soldier from the age of 12: It is a lucky child that knows its own mind so early. Many are simply bewildered by the abundance of courses available, with little concept of where they might lead. I changed subjects after my first year, giving up economics, where I couldn't handle the statistics, for a degree in history, with no particular career in mind.

The young people whose parents did not go to university, the older students who feel they missed out, need to be nurtured within the broader educational system. As it is, they find themselves pitched in with middle-class youngsters who share the same values and, however timid they may feel inside, often display assertive self-confidence. It can be a real social put-down for those less fluent in the mores of the tribe.

Teenage years are full of doubt and introspection. Hormones are in full spate, the media is full of giddy advice and ludicrous expectations. Young people are bound to make bad choices and then try to put them right. The £800m of government money should not simply have targeted getting students to stay on, however unwillingly, but have explored how to help them find the right place for themselves even if it is not within the university community. To drop out because of financial pressures, class snobbery or social isolation is deeply regrettable. To drop out because you have discovered something you'd rather do with your life can only be good.

Join our new commenting forum

Join thought-provoking conversations, follow other Independent readers and see their replies

View comments