You can't count on the carefree

March 29, 2002

In their drive to boost numbers, universities are recruiting students who lack motivation and drop out without a second thought. Frank Furedi seeks a solution in the US.

Universities are frantically trying to pack more students into lecture halls. There are 44,800 additional places to be filled next year and universities that fail to meet their recruitment targets face financial penalties.

Predictably, universities, which are funded on the basis of the number of students they recruit, are loath to turn applicants away. So whereas two years ago 79.3 per cent of applicants were offered a place, last October the proportion rose to 81.4 per cent. The pressure to "widen participation" is gradually turning into a de facto open-door policy.

This open-door policy has, unsurprisingly, led to a rise in the proportion of students who drop out before completing their courses. There is a clear correlation between increasing the number of poorly qualified and relatively unmotivated students and falling rates of retention. Figures from the Scottish Executive indicate that the percentage of young people leaving state schools to go on to higher education has increased from 50 to 52 per cent. But this expansion of the Scottish student population is paralleled by a significant increase in dropout rates.

Paisley University has the highest dropout rate in Scotland - it is projected that 29 per cent will bail out. Many English universities - especially those with minimal entry requirements - have an even higher dropout rate. Last year, the proportion of University of North London students who left their degree course between their first and third years rose from 38 per cent to 41 per cent. At South Bank University, the rate rose from 30 per cent to 33 per cent. According to official figures, the overall student non-completion rate in UK universities stands at about 17 per cent.

Some of the advocates of widening access are relatively relaxed about this fall in retention rates. It appears that they believe that it is a price worth paying. It has even been argued that since the UK still has relatively high retention rates in comparison to other major industrialised countries, there is not much to worry about. Last year a report of the all-party education and employment select committee even suggested that students who drop out of university after completing the first year of their degree should be given formal recognition. This proposal also has the merit of eliminating the problem of retention in one fell swoop.

Sadly, the official figures on retention rates tell only a small part of the story. In addition to those who have formally dropped out, there is now a significant number of students who are only minimally engaged in university work and whose relationship to their courses is at best episodic. They have informally dropped out. The response of many universities - and not just the new ones - is to accommodate this disengaged section of the student population so as not to drive them away from their courses and increase the number of formal dropouts.

In some institutions, students who have barely attended a seminar or a lecture have been encouraged to use course material and lecture notes off the web to make sure that they can move on to their final undergraduate year. One -year-old second-year "full-time undergraduate" who has a day job as a carpenter was informed by his tutor that his difficult circumstances might entitle him to a concession. Having more or less abandoned the possibility of continuing with his course, he was delighted to discover that the concessionary evidence that he cobbled together allowed him to proceed to his final year.

Recently, the Commons' education select committee has called for research on university dropouts. Unfortunately, the demand for this research is based on the mistaken premise that the main reason for students dropping out of courses early is financial hardship. Student poverty, no doubt, places pressure on students and some of them drop out for this reason. But as committee chairman Barry Sheerman notes, the best indicator of whether students will stick with their courses is their A-level performance. Sheerman argues that the better the grades, the less likely students are to drop out, regardless of their social class.

There are perfectly good reasons for providing students with decent financial support. But improving retention rates is not one of them. Colleagues from across the university sector indicate that they now encounter a new breed of unmotivated and poorly prepared student. "Some of my undergraduates have no idea why they are here and what they are supposed to do," observes a leading social scientist from a redbrick university.

Even recently appointed lecturers in their late 20s are astonished by the presence of a significant body of students who show little interest in engaging with their studies. According to one lecturer from a new university in the Northeast, it is not simply a case that some students are bored with their course and turn off, "they never turned on in the first place". Many such students regard their studies as a trial run: if it works out, fine, and if it doesn't, then dropping out and finding something else to do is no big deal.

Some tutors report that a minority of students treat dropping out with disturbing casualness. "It is more akin to changing jobs than being forced to abandon a real commitment," argues a colleague involved in monitoring student progress.

Universities up and down the country advertise the comprehensive range of services that they provide so that students can cope with temporary or long-term challenges and difficulties. Such services can make a valuable contribution to supporting students facing unexpected adversity. However, they can do little to help those who lack the motivation to study in the first place. The fact that widening-access policies are used not to motivate but simply to recruit potential students creates a serious problem for higher education. Unless students really aspire to study in the first place, universities cannot play a constructive role in encouraging their intellectual development. Unable to motivate, many sectors of higher education are forced to compromise and lower their expectations of new recruits. Treating students as passive consumers and school children can have a corrosive effect on university life overall. Most importantly, the institutionalisation of a regime of compromise can serve to demotivate those who genuinely want to get stuck into their courses.

The key to motivating students is better preparation. But such preparation needs to take place prior to entry into higher education. School students from disadvantaged backgrounds need to be targeted and supported through schemes that help them to improve their grades and to prepare them for higher education.

In the United States, some universities intervene while students are still studying in high school. They are offered extra tuition and are invited on special courses run by the university on campus. As a result, by the time they enter higher education, they are prepared and highly motivated. The UK approach - get them in by any means - avoids the challenge of providing genuine intellectual support for those young people from disadvantaged backgrounds who could benefit from it. Is it any surprise that it is not just the university sector but also further education colleges that are facing the retention problem?

According to reports, four out of ten colleges are faced with a growing number of students dropping out. Clearly, the failure to motivate begins some time before students arrive on the university campus. Experience shows that universities are not particularly good at solving the problems created through the school years. And when they try to play the role of a school teacher, they risk diminishing their effectiveness as providers of higher education.

Frank Furedi is professor of sociology at the School of Social Policy, Sociology and Social Research at the University of Kent.

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