Living the dream

Students' expectations of college life are formed long before they arrive, but blaming them for a lack of realism isn't the answer. Hannah Fearn reports

September 11, 2008

I loved my university. It was by far the best experience of my life - but nothing like the prospectus promised," says a recent graduate. "The only accurate information I received before arriving was the urban legend of elitism and peer rivalry."

When students arrive at university, they carry with them a host of expectations about higher education - expectations that can be easily disappointed. With attrition rates under the spotlight and students becoming savvy and demanding consumers who expect value for money, universities are now in the business of managing these expectations.

It would, of course, be a brave university that sent out prospectuses full of images of plain-looking students drinking warm beer in a dingy concrete union rather than photogenic young people sprawled across sunny lawns.

Although universities' hard-sell tactics prompted the Government's own student juries to label prospectuses "misleading" and "woefully inadequate", it is not glossy brochures alone that shape students' expectations. The views of family, friends and teachers can also help to create a potentially unrealistic view. So can student life ever live up to the ideal the sixth-former is presented with?

Aaron Porter, vice-president for higher education at the National Union of Students, says that as universities compete ever harder in the student market, exaggerated messages about what can be expected from university life are "inevitable".

"I think it's fair to say that in an increasing market in higher education, there are directors of marketing who are keen to oversell and are not necessarily fully aware of how that can be disappointing when the student arrives.

"It's up to the institution to ensure that the information it distributes is a fair reflection of what the students can expect. The proof of the pudding will be in institutions that manage to retain their students because their expectations were realistic."

Disappointed expectations are dangerous things. Students who feel dissatisfied with their institution are more likely to leave before completing their course.

As one former student of a 1994 Group university who lasted only until the end of the first term explains: "It was totally different from what I was expecting, both academically and socially, and (it) totally let me down. Academically, I had no idea what was going on as we were never explicitly told about what was expected of us."

A report for the Higher Education Academy by Mantz York and Bernard Langdon into the reasons for non-continuation among first-year students across 25 universities found that of those students who dropped out, 48 per cent said "the programme was not what I expected". A further 42 per cent said, "the way the programme was taught did not suit me", while 42 per cent also agreed with the statement, "I simply realised that I had chosen the wrong field of study".

According to Tony Cook, director of the Student Transition and Retention (STAR) project at the University of Ulster: "These are things that students could have found out about. The applicants very often don't do their research, especially those who come through clearing. They come to university thinking they know what it's going to be like and thinking they know what the subject is, but they don't research it thoroughly enough. They think that if friends have been to that university, or their parents have been to it, it's going to be OK, so they don't bother finding out what it's going to be like."

But even for those who have done their research, the difference in teaching and learning techniques between secondary and tertiary education is a major stumbling block. Cook explains: "I don't think we at universities really understand how different A levels are now from when we did them. They are focused on what the student needs to know to succeed.

"Students have the attitude that all they have got to do is regurgitate what they're told. Some are coming to university thinking it's going to be the same (as school), and it's not. We tell them what they need to do to pass, to get 40 per cent, but that's it. Many of us don't understand that that's the culture that they have come from because we didn't come from that culture. It's not their fault, and in a sense it's not our fault. There is no blame game here; it's just a difference in the way things are done."

Michael Arthur, vice-chancellor of the University of Leeds, agrees that the difference in teaching styles between school and university causes problems. New students struggle to adjust to genuinely independent study, he says, and it is up to universities to address this gulf between the two levels of education.

"I have become quite concerned about the rather assessment-driven process that pupils go through in primary and secondary education," says Arthur. "I think it's got worse. I think they are being increasingly taught in the context of getting good grades in an assessment. When they come here, they expect something similar."

He continues: "We should be influencing secondary education in particular, and possibly as far back as primary. It's not just the responsibility of secondary and primary education, it's also a responsibility of higher education to change things at the front end of courses."

While it is hard for all new students to understand the reality of what it will be like to live and study at university before they arrive, those who have the most difficulty in visualising student life are those who come to higher education as part of the drive to widen participation.

A paper by Christopher Laing, Kuo-Ming Chao and Alan Robinson published in the Journal of Further and Higher Education, "Managing the expectations of non-traditional students", describes the problem: "Many non-traditional students have had little preparation for academic life. These students often have unrealistic expectations of higher education, expectations that sometimes are at odds with a successful transition from secondary to higher education.

"In addition, higher education institutions are often unaware of the way that higher education is perceived by non-traditional students. This situation cannot remain unchecked. It is of the utmost importance that students whose background has not given them sufficient understanding of higher education cannot be blamed for this lack of appreciation, but must be helped in developing the necessary academic study skills," the paper says.

This problem can be even greater for overseas students who have been educated in a system that prioritises learning by rote and who have been taught never to question their teachers.

Teaching and learning aside, there are other culture shocks that the non-traditional student might be unprepared for. Many international students might not understand that UK student life often revolves around the consumption of alcohol. They might not be used to a drinking culture and have been told little about it in advance. Being honest about the nature of university life, while continuing to attract lucrative international students to study in the UK, poses a dilemma for universities.

"We have got quite a lot of Muslim students. They don't drink alcohol in the first place," says a member of staff at a Russell Group university. "How do you tell a Muslim student that there's a drinking culture in the UK, particularly thinking about what their parents are going to say?"

This applies even to students from apparently culturally similar parts of the world, such as South America. "You think it's (a part of the world with) a vibrant social life, but for people like that it still comes as quite a shock to be in our student culture," he says.

So how successful are universities at retaining students? It is not a surprise that the most prestigious universities, including Oxford and Cambridge, hold on to their students, suffering just 1.2 per cent attrition after the first year of study, according to figures from the Higher Education Statistics Agency.

Perhaps the image of life at Britain's oldest institutions is not so different from the reality. Specialist colleges, including the Royal Academy of Music, also do well. But at the other end of the scale the picture is very different. At the University of Ulster, 15.2 per cent of students fail to complete their first year, a figure that places it near the bottom of the sector.

In an attempt to address the problem, Ulster has launched its STAR project, together with Liverpool Hope University and the universities of Brighton, Sunderland and Manchester, which aims to introduce a series of measures to help students cope with the transition from school to university. Part of Ulster's solution is to produce a list of guidelines to help students settle into university life.

These state that information about the campus and course should be accurate and lead to realistic expectations from potential students; student support should be available even before study begins; staff should monitor their own performance in managing expectations; and induction activities should highlight obligations on both sides.

The project also runs a programme called Home Start to help students living in non-university accommodation meet other new students socially. The university works closely with schools to provide taster sessions to give pupils an insight into university life.

Leeds ensures that new students feel safe in unfamiliar surroundings by working with local authorities to put more community police on campus in the first few weeks of term. First-year students are also given a written agreement setting out the responsibilities of the academic department in which they are studying - detailing exactly what it will provide - alongside its expectations of students.

Ulster's Tony Cook says it is easy for universities to mitigate the effects of the culture shock if they try. "Sending information out to students prior to entry helps. Even if they weren't well informed when they applied, they can be well informed by the time they arrive. That first week is so intensive and it's so different, they don't retain anything about it."

The point about the quality of induction is a salient one. Most universities in the UK pack a number of orientation and briefing events into just one week - Freshers Week. In the US, however (see box), induction or orientation programmes are often scheduled over the whole of the first term, helping students adjust to, and participate in, university life over time.

Integration and induction can start even earlier, before students have arrived on campus.

Becka Currant, head of learning development and student engagement at the University of Bradford, runs a website called DevelopMe!, which aims to help students settle in quickly. It offers a place to meet other students and discuss fears before they arrive and throughout the first year. Importantly, it gathers views from incoming students, allowing the university to respond more accurately to their needs.

Yet when it comes to making choices, students have more information than before. With the National Student Survey (NSS), students are no longer reliant on the testimony of university marketing departments to understand what to expect from higher education, but can call on the views of current and former students of each degree programme at each university.

At Leeds, Arthur, who is also the chair of the NSS steering group, says: "We think that providing students with an official service of high-quality information about the courses and the universities that they're looking at is a key starting point for making sure that their expectations are appropriate. I think we're acutely aware that our performance has to match up to our proposition. We're a Russell Group institution - we're popular but we're very, very aware that if you get a reputation for not fulfilling the expectations that a student has of you from the information that you put out, you're not going to last very long in a competitive marketplace."

Gathering this information is essential to understanding exactly what new students' expectations are. Understanding expectations, realistic or otherwise, is the first step to ensuring that students are not disappointed when they arrive. Satisfied students go out into the community and promote a positive message about an institution.

"When I hear we have got to 'manage' expectations, it causes despair because it means they don't want to look at what's driving dissatisfaction," says Alistair Nicoll, market research manager at the University of Sheffield.

Nicoll's work collating student opinion and presenting each department with its failings has had exceptional results for the university. Each department that had done poorly found the students' criticisms incredibly enlightening, and there were certainly issues that the students highlighted that the department had not previously recognised.

"I have been talking to various people in different departments who have problems with the NSS. I have had conversations, and with one of the departments that had done poorly I told them what they ought to be doing. When I was presenting to the faculty, they said how useful they found it. There are undoubtedly things that they were completely unaware of."

And if any institution needs proof of why student expectations should be listened to, the story of Sheffield's psychology department should suffice. After a presentation of student views from Nicoll's market research team, the department put in place some of their recommendations.

These include a clear marking criteria to be presented to all students before their first assignments were graded. Just one year later, the department had an improved rating in all 22 dimensions assessed in the NSS.


One institution recognised for its success in improving expectations is Loughborough University. It is known for offering the best "student experience": it consistently does well in the National Student Survey and it has won the Times Higher Education award for best student experience two years running.

"I think it's true that we have got what we now call the 'Loughborough experience'," says vice-chancellor Shirley Pearce. "It refers to the high-quality student and staff experience of living and working on the campus".

She says the key to the university's success is the way it considers the student experience to begin not on the first day of the first term, but from a person's very first contact with the institution.

"We like to ensure that our students feel that they have had a really warm welcome to the campus from the day they first make contact with us, (and) our existing students are an important part of our open-day experience."

Although the success of the Loughborough experience has not yet had a measurable impact on the university's retention rates, it has yielded other positive results. "We have increased our profile nationally and there has been an increase in our A-level entry grades. That's been the most noticeable change," Pearce says.

But Pearce also adds that there is a limit to what a university can do in terms of managing, and indeed meeting, expectations.

"For young people coming (to university) from school, it's a monumental change in lifestyle and responsibilities and a level of independence and looking after yourself.

"As a mother of two sons who have been to university," she says, "I'm very well aware of the change it produces for a family and for the young person. I'm not sure we can provide a complete preparation for that.

"What I have to do as the head of an institution is ensure that we're doing all we can to help with that change. However much we do, there is still going to be a process of adjustment, and some people will cope with that adjustment better than others."


Understanding and managing student expectations is a complicated business, but it is perhaps made simpler if your students are looking for just one thing from your institution - extremely specialised tuition.

"Because we're a single-subject institution and are smaller, we have a particular kind of community in which both academic and support staff work in a more close relationship than might be the case in a larger institution," says Keith Bartlett, deputy principal of Norwich University College of the Arts.

When students choose to study at the college, their expectations are based around the expertise in their subject rather than broader issues, and they understand that a smaller institution means their experience will be more personal.

"Students choose to go to a specialist institution very deliberately. They want to come to a small institution. They bring an expectation about what the experience is going to be like, and in the main they recognise that there is a bit of a trade-off.

"What they're really coming for is the community. Everybody knows each other's name. The staff are all specialists and they're all practitioners."

But being small and uniquely focused can also lead to problems in providing the services that students need and desire. "The main problem is that if you're smaller, the resources are that much more stretched. We don't necessarily have the manpower or the financial capacity to tackle all the tasks in the same way that a much bigger institution might be able to," says Bartlett.

"We don't have our own counsellor, for example. We buy in counselling for students from an external provider. The problems come with the staff resources and the financial resources."

But the lack of resources is offset by the fact that most students apply to the institution because of its reputation and experience, and therefore disappointed expectations are relatively uncommon. "It won't have the same range of facilities and the same scale that a big university may have, but they're comfortable with that because that's the choice they're making," Bartlett says.


It's Wild Week, orientation for the 4,000 new students at the University of Arkansas, Fayetteville, and the newcomers are tucking in at a barbecue.

"Wild" stands for "welcome, involvement, leadership and diversity", and is made up of dozens of events carefully orchestrated to entertain "freshman" students without involving alcohol - and ultimately to help them avoid leaving university without completing a degree.

"It looks like we're just doing a lot of socialising and eating a lot of free food, but each of these events has learning goals attached to them to help these students get adjusted to the college experience," says Shelia Higgs Burkhalter, director of first-year experience.

"Having something like an ice-cream social really is an opportunity for them to make connections with people."

Studies in the US show that students who are isolated from their peers are more likely to become involved with substance abuse, to commit violence, and to drop out.

This means that in recent years orientation programmes have increased enormously in importance and have been expanded to continue through the entire first year and are no longer limited to a single week.

Programmes now include term-long, seminar-style courses in subjects such as stress management and time management, how to prepare academic papers and how to use the library. Meticulously trained older student mentors are paid to work as orientation leaders.

"The entire first year is full of transitions for our students. It's not just the first day or the first week or the first semester," says Burkhalter. "And it's students who do not connect to an institution who are not likely to be there for the second year."

The efforts made at Arkansas are not, of course, entirely altruistic. Universities are increasingly judged on their retention rates, and more than 20 per cent of university students in the US fail to return for a second year. Faculties are demanding that orientation leave students prepared for something other than drinking.

Richard Mullendore, professor of college student affairs administration at the University of Georgia, explains: "Traditional orientation had a reputation for being fun and games as opposed to, 'let's get academically oriented to get ready for this difficult new experience'.

"Orientation programmes have become much more academically focused. Because if (students) get off to a good start, they're going to stay. And retention is one of the barometers that is used to judge colleges."

That is why freshman orientation has become such a sophisticated business. It involves annual conferences of orientation directors, increasing numbers of dedicated staff, and fast-growing bodies of research.

But Burkhalter, whose year-round, full-time workforce now numbers four, plus 80 paid student-orientation leaders, says it was not problems with alcohol abuse or complaints from academics that were responsible for this shift.

It was the arrival at US universities of what she calls the millennial generation - young people who are closely connected to their parents and who have little experience of failure.

"My mom and dad just dropped me off at school and only called me once," Burkhalter recalls. "With this generation, because of the relationship they have with their parents, they're not necessarily used to being told 'No,' or to failing, because mom and dad have pretty much always been there to catch them before they fall. So we have had to change the approach to how we help them."

This includes not only those stress-management and time-management seminars, but also offering supplemental instruction in small groups to help first-year students handle large introductory lectures.

Most freshman-orientation programmes also now invite parents to come to the campus, which keeps the children on their best behaviour, Mullendore says.

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