Turn on, tune in, don't drop out

The first months at university are critical for a happy student experience. Indeed, so crucial are they that they are arguably a key focus of QAA reviews. Sarah Cunnane reports

February 16, 2012

In 1988, an editorial in this publication described the first year of study in US universities as the "point of contact, sometimes collision" between the world of "ivy-clad buildings and Wasp professors" and that of their students.

On that side of the Atlantic, the article said, the quality of students' first year in higher education was a topic of intense concern, but in Britain, it was an issue that needed to be taken "much more seriously".

It went on to predict that UK universities, too, might soon have to "examine critically today's standards [and] their expectations of first-year students" as their own student bodies grew in diversity.

Almost 25 years later, in a sure sign that the first-year experience has become a mainstream concern, the Quality Assurance Agency has chosen the topic as the first theme for its cycle of audits taking place in universities across England and Northern Ireland this academic year.

The first year of higher education is "critical" for laying the foundations of academic study, the QAA says, and a key time for "learning how to cope with the demands of a new environment and personal responsibilities".

A large body of research evidence backs this up.

John Gardner, president of the John N. Gardner Institute for Excellence in Undergraduate Education, is often credited with being the first higher education professional to advocate a focus on the first-year experience in the US sector. One of the main reasons why he has argued for its importance is because it is the period when dropout rates are highest. In the UK, about 12 per cent of students are expected to drop out of higher education, with 8 per cent leaving in their first year.

The move from school to university can be difficult. Indeed, Gardner himself nearly dropped out after what he describes as a "miserable" first year.

Focusing on the first year and how it could be improved sounds like a "ridiculously obvious idea - kind of like bottled water or a suitcase on wheels", he says. "The point was that no one had done it."

But today, an annual conference in the US on the first-year experience is entering its 31st year and many US universities take the issue so seriously that they boast an Office for the First-Year Experience.

The first year has been a focus for research in Australia too: the Australian government has commissioned a report into the first-year student experience every five years since 1994.

The studies were commissioned because "expansion in participation, changing student expectations and new forms of student engagement - and for that matter disengagement - meant that old norms and practices needed to be questioned", explains Richard James, pro vice-chancellor for participation and engagement, director of the Centre for the Study of Higher Education at the University of Melbourne and one of the authors of these studies.

The first year is crucial for establishing "positive engagement" with higher education and for inculcating effective study habits, he says - and the first few weeks of university are particularly critical because the evidence indicates that most students who decide to quit do so in the first month.

"In some ways you can measure the 'health' of a university by the attention paid to first-year programmes," James claims.

He says that the focus on the first-year experience in Australian higher education has now grown into "a major industry".

Perhaps this explains why the latest survey, from 2009, found that school leavers were reporting an easier academic transition to university than those surveyed five years earlier.

However, the survey, The First Year Experience in Australian Universities: Findings from 1994 to 2009, also identified worrying trends, with students stating that they felt that the learning process had become "depersonalised".

"Student-teaching interaction appears impersonal and distant for many students," the report says. "Fewer students believe one of their teachers knows their name" and "fewer believe academic staff show an interest in their progress".

A growing proportion of first-year students in Australia were also undertaking paid work, with full-time students working an average of almost 13 hours a week, while study hours had fallen. The results captured the views of the last cohort to be surveyed before the 2008 Bradley Review which - like the Browne Review in England - heralded a period of significant change in Australian higher education, leading to new policies such as the uncapping of student numbers.

What will this mean for the future of the first-year experience in Australia? "We're going to see more students commencing higher education without adequate preparedness, at least as we once conceived of it," James predicts. "This does not mean that these students are a lost cause and that universities are being dumbed down - although already we hear public outcry along these lines. But major pedagogical challenges are involved and careful educative strategies need to be in place."

The changes, he thinks, will lead to a need for more specialist first-year teaching roles, "in recognition that the needs of students may not be met by traditional academics holding research and teaching positions".

So, with the importance of the first year in higher education already firmly established in other countries' sectors, how seriously is the issue taken in England?

According to Lee Harvey, co-author of a 2006 report, The First Year Experience: A Review of the Literature for the Higher Education Academy, and co-editor of the Higher Education Quarterly journal, there is still a long way to go. "Yes, there's loads of research on this but universities don't read it," he claims.

"Or if they do, they don't care or say they don't have resources to deal with it - after all, they are all expending so much effort trying to grab research money or insinuating themselves up meaningless ranking tables."

The QAA's Maureen McLaughlin, assistant director in the reviews group and method coordinator for institutional review in England and Northern Ireland, disagrees.

"The only area where the UK is catching up is the idea of formalisation of the first-year experience," she says. "The academy is not naive to the issues that first-year students have, and many institutions are doing good work in this area individually. We're just bringing it together through the process of review."

When it comes to the key areas that universities should address when looking to improve the first year for new students, much attention has traditionally focused on the very start of term and freshers' week. However, this is starting to change.

Harvey says that universities need to be careful to avoid "information overload" when students start university.

This was a problem when he surveyed the literature in 2006, and it is a recurring theme. "Anecdotal information from friends and neighbours who have children fresh at university is that the information provided at the beginning is extensive, uncoordinated and would be more useful tied into times when it is needed, and/or a much longer induction process that is interactive, rather than passive absorption of information," he says.

A charter published by the National Union of Students last month makes much the same point, and says that induction should be an ongoing process throughout a student's time at university, an argument that is being made increasingly often.

"Students are often loaded with information about the institution at the start of their course," the NUS charter says. "Messages regarding support and guidance can get lost in the excitement...Students are often unaware of what they should know in relation to their study skills, so an extended induction process is required to ensure that key messages get through. This should not be limited to the first year."

St Andrews is one university that now offers what Christine Lusk, director of student services, calls "expanded orientation", with nearly 300 events on offer.

"We want people to very quickly feel they belong in our university," she explains. If this is achieved, "they stay longer, they perform better, they retain their contact with us for longer if they feel they belong here, comfortably fitting with the expectations of the place".

But support and encouragement continue well beyond the start of term thanks to the university's "academic families" system, under which first-year students are given a third- or fourth-year mentor.

Universities are also working to ease the transition to higher education by introducing students to university study before they even arrive on campus, via taster courses, summer schools and social media interaction.

A 2008 study by Mantz Yorke and Bernard Longden, The First-Year Experience of Higher Education in the UK, showed that those students who had prior experience and interaction with higher education were more satisfied with their courses.

"Students who have had good prior information regarding what to expect tend to show a greater match of expectations to experience," Yorke says.

Of course, the social aspect of university can be just as important to students as the academic side, but Yorke feels it is sometimes given insufficient attention.

"Students can feel very isolated in a higher education environment, and become discouraged. Many - but perhaps a declining number of - students are living away from home for the first time, and sometimes in environments that are unfamiliar and perhaps threatening. Local students may be particularly disadvantaged if they are, in US terminology, 'commuter students', who come in for timetabled activities but then go back home or to part-time employment."

Feelings of isolation were highlighted in a recent project at the University of Essex that examined the experiences of mature first-year students. A blog written about the project by Rachel Fletcher, director of student support at Essex, says the project, which involved surveys and focus groups, was an "eye-opening experience".

"We were politely but firmly told that several participants had felt invisible, marginalised and isolated during their time at Essex, and that there was much more the university could do to help them make the most of their student experience and to demonstrate that mature students were valued members of the university community."

New initiatives put in place as a result include a pre-arrival "housewarming" event, which aims to "reduce anxiety associated with making the transition to university", and a "spring refresher" event for mature students, focusing on exam preparation skills and stress management, says Katie Rakow, student retention officer at Essex and project officer.

The university has also introduced flexible learning options as a result of what Rakow terms "the family paradox". "Family members play a role in motivating mature students to attend university and to continue studying on their course.

However, responsibilities for dependants may also divert attention away from studies, thereby impacting negatively on coursework and course completion. Many mature students have to deal with a complex push-pull relationship with family to which the university needs to be sensitive and is committed to understanding."

When experts are asked what universities can do to improve the first-year experience, the importance of personalised learning and support is a recurring theme.

Harvey cites research undertaken into the student experience, which shows that students learn best in small, supportive groups, when they are taught by trained teachers using interactive teaching and learning, with formative feedback and one-to-one focus.

He fears that the reality is often a long way from this. "What do students get? Large, impersonal lectures, poor lecturing, no interactivity, seminars run by untrained or barely trained and inexperienced postgraduates or teaching assistants, no one-to-ones and no formative feedback. Frankly, it is a disgrace. And the more 'prestigious' the institution, the worse the first-year experience."

A similar argument for the importance of personalised learning and contact with staff is made by the authors of the 2009 Australian study, who state: "We believe greater attention needs to be paid to ensuring all students have the opportunity for closer personal interactions with academic staff at least at some stage during the first year. This is not a cry for a return to an imagined halcyon era, rather our recommendation is based in the belief that teacher empathy, demonstrated interest in students as individuals and respect for students are important factors in students' academic and social engagement."

The challenge is to achieve this in a system of mass higher education. One-to-one contact with university staff, especially teaching staff, is "vitally important", says James, but it is "oh so difficult to provide in mass universal systems in which staff-student ratios grow".

In their 2008 study, Yorke and Longden found that contact with academics was a more important factor than financial concerns when it came to students' satisfaction with their first year.

However, with the cap on tuition fees trebling this autumn, Yorke believes that the issues of finance and contact may become more closely intertwined.

"Those who are financially stressed may well have their eyes more on their bank balances and/or future financial commitments than on contact," he suggests. "But when fees are heightened, there is likely to be an accompanying focus on the value students are getting for the money they are laying out."

Gardner identifies five areas in particular that universities should focus on if they are to successfully improve the experience on offer to first-year students. They must improve academic support and advice, orientation, induction and teaching on first-year courses, he believes. More staff development would improve teaching while increasing financial aid to students would ensure that students do not have to undertake as many hours of paid work per week while they are enrolled at university.

The decision to make the first-year experience the theme of the QAA's latest cycle of reviews was made by the Quality Assurance Framework Stakeholder Group, which includes representatives of Universities UK and of the higher education funding bodies. It was selected, says the QAA's McLaughlin, because of the wealth of past research into the first-year experience and widespread recognition of the importance of transition into higher education. "We felt it was about time to refresh some of that by looking closely at what institutions are doing now, this year, as part of that," she explains. "We're at the cusp of the time when the first-year experience may be perceived differently when the larger fees are being paid; it's an opportune time to be looking at it."

With the QAA planning to gather up and analyse reviewers' observations on the first-year experience in the hope that this will help to spread best practice across the sector, institutions will be keen to show reviewers that they have made progress in this area.

But with universities in England about to enter a new and unpredictable funding system, is there a risk that work to improve the student experience could be undone by outside factors over which the academy has little influence?

Cutbacks in funding, worsening staff-to-student ratios and a growing focus on research productivity can all cause harm, Harvey says.

"In the end, however, under any policy or funding regime, a university has choices," he continues. "It can choose to support the student experience in positive ways - and a good first year sets up all the others."

What students believe universities should do to improve the first-year experience

Starting university can be a shock to the system, particularly for mature students.

"Leaving a previous occupation to enter full-time education with people you know will be much younger than you is an unnerving experience," says Mike Roke, a mature student at the University of Surrey.

But he feels that Surrey "did everything within their power to make my transition as painless as possible".

He particularly appreciated activities designed to help mature students integrate, such as a mature students' cafe event hosted by the university's Mature Students' Society.

Gerard Gyedu, a first-year undergraduate at Brunel University, also feels that his institution gave students a good induction.

However, he thinks it could have placed more emphasis on the social side of the transition.

"My institution could have held more events for the individual halls and complexes to help people integrate and meet new people."

He adds: "University can get very lonely sometimes. It is very important to put yourself about and speak to as many people as possible."

Kate Dunstone, a first-year undergraduate at the University of Leeds, feels that the academic and social introduction at Leeds was comprehensive.

However, she was unable to attend all the introductory sessions she had hoped to go to. "I attempted to book a few, only to be beaten to the punch by some more savvy students," she explains.

"If there was anything Leeds could do, it would be to offer several of the most popular sessions, rather than just one."

The biggest challenge, she says, has been adapting to independent learning after the relatively scheduled way of working at school.

While her department has been helpful, she warns that such support is by no means a given. "I have heard a few horror stories," Dunstone says.

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