The latest figures for the number of students leaving university courses during their first year show little decrease on previous years’ figures.
I recognise that some students make a mistake on choosing the wrong courses, some take up opportunities outside the world of continuing education and many others leave for financial or personal reasons. However the real problem is that many students are not prepared for the academic rigours of university life. The fall off is much higher amongst young people from lower income households. I do not believe that this is solely because of money problems – all too frequently they do not have the support and the aspiration from their family that is necessary to help them keep focused.
University education is a significant step up from school and sixth form college instruction. The more I see of education in overseas institutions the greater the importance that needs to be attached to hard work for students prior to reaching higher education.
In this country some education standards are on the wane, as most people agree, but not if one looks at the academic strength in our top schools and in many parts of the private schooling sector. Few from these education establishments fall away before the end of their university time and that is because the pupils are put under the pressure that they are likely to experience at university.
A recent report from the Public Accounts Select Committee entitled: Studying the Course: the retention of students on higher education courses suggested that the 22% of undergraduate students who are dropping out of UK universities do so because of lack of support. But it fails to make any comment on the intellectual rigour which should be a part of schools’ necessary preparation for its students prior to going to university. According to this groundbreaking report, universities are getting larger, risk being impersonal, and fail to provide individual tutors to support students through their degrees. For some students the idea of “personal” teaching is an unknown concept from their scholastic education. Yet the government has spent £800 million over recent years trying to prevent students dropping out of courses. What the money has been spent on nobody seems to know.
Some universities may be failing to deliver on their promises of pastoral support but the major problem is the gulf between the quality of learning and teaching through GCSEs, “A” levels and beyond compared to what is required for degree level study.
Those students most likely to drop out – especially those from poorer backgrounds, with disabilities and with young families – have their hopes raised, get to university and then feel let down. The failure of expectations is the common theme for many who drop out of university when it is clear that all that was needed was a good dose of realism before starting a university course and an authentic examination of their own potential capabilities.
The government after eleven years in power continues to herald the success of our education system, claiming that A-levels have not been dumbed down. According to the Labour government British school teachers are the best in the world and our students are more intelligent and diligent than ever before. But who believes that?
As the summer examination period approaches its end the great problem that is faced by universities is how they can do their best to ensure that the fall off rate for new students is better than last year. Some universities are now adopting their own entrance exams as the only way to gather an objective knowledge of a student’s true intellectual capability.
The “A” Level examination was once admired across the world. Its credibility has been damaged by a government determined to expand higher education and desperate to demonstrate a supposed rise in educational standards. This is completely the wrong direction for our nation’s future. If we are to handle the demands of the global marketplace we need the skills of our young people to be of the highest quality.
We now need our top academic institutions to collaborate with the highest achieving state and independent schools to create a new A-level system which will test our young people and help to identify the most able. Then we shall know that the support which we need to pay for and to direct towards our young people will be going where it will do the most good.
Courses that give intellectually able 16 to 18-year-olds the chance to study three subjects that interest them in depth is an ideal preparation for university. Those students who pass tough examinations will know that they have to continue in a similar vein to achieve success at university. Their preparations will therefore be appropriate rather than misguided and the likelihood of their leaving during the first year of university study greatly reduced.
This country needs to encourage its young people to have aspiration and ambition with the recognition that little that is worth achieving is gained without hard work and a bit of struggle. The idea that university life is something that can be tried to see if you like it is without comparison in the overseas education establishments that I have seen. Most students have had to work incredibly hard to be accepted at their chosen university and they certainly do not then immediately choose to leave within the first months.
We have our education formula wrong. Looking to the future we can reduce that failure by ensuring we prepare our students for the range of realities of university life so that they all stay the course.