May 23, 2003

Universities used to take study skills for granted - higher education was sufficiently selective for most students to have acquired a grounding in their subject that would allow them to adapt to a more self-directed learning environment. New entrants might be instructed on using the library, but it was not regarded as the institution’s responsibility to instil a learning culture.

Today’s circumstances are very different. Not only does the university system encompass a much wider spread of ability and background, but even the best-qualified entrants are likely to have enjoyed a level of spoon-feeding in the sixth form that can make the transition to higher education a serious shock. Without help, many will flounder. The dropout rates in some universities and colleges show that the available assistance still falls short of students’ requirements. Of course, there are many reasons that a student may abandon his or her studies, but the strong correlation with entry qualifications and the tendency for most of those who drop out to do so in their first year suggest that an inability to cope with the demands of the course is the prime cause.

In England, the higher education funding council’s controversial decision to reallocate millions of pounds to institutions admitting students with fewer than three Cs at A level is an attempt to address the problem. As an incentive to admissions officers, the decision looks perverse, but it represents an acknowledgement that those with poor entry qualifications need extra support if they are to succeed in higher education.

The question is whether such sums will be spent wisely. This supplement addresses some of the issues that will need to be tackled to help students through their undergraduate years and to prepare them for employment. There is plenty of good practice to guide institutions and individuals. Publishers spotted the gap in the market long ago, and produce guidance in subjects and more basic advice on study skills. In particular, the volume of material available on CD-Roms and websites has grown dramatically.

Self-help is no substitute for personal assistance on campus, however. Some universities and colleges have introduced personal-development planning to ensure that individuals’ needs are met. Often based on learning agreements similar to those pioneered in secondary schools, these may go as far as negotiating detailed assessment methods, but they need not involve radical change to normal practice. The strength of the agreements lies in the discipline they bring to individuals’ study habits, but there are other ways of providing help for students. Further education colleges are particularly experienced in this regard and may have much to teach universities. Whether this involves confidence-building or something as basic as note-taking, the potential to transform the student experience is well documented.

In an era when government attention is focused on bringing higher education to a broader section of the population, the availability of such assistance will be essential. Ministers already have a close eye on dropout rates. But there are few students who cannot benefit from some attention to vital skills.   

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