Peer support is vital to prevent dropouts, explain Alastair Forbes and Eugenia Wickens
Reports in last week's Times Higher of concerns that widening participation will lead to greater dropout rates will only increase pressure on universities to develop strategies to promote retention. But most research focuses on practices aimed at improving retention and performance and on students who have dropped out rather than on what motivates first-year undergraduates to succeed or stops them dropping out.
Our just-completed Understanding Undergraduates project with first-year leisure and tourism students found that support from their peers is vital to students' success, partly because they see their friends as the only ones who understand them. Many prefer to discuss any problems with friends rather than with a tutor or with support services.
Most interviewees were first-generation undergraduates and for this reason they felt that their parents, though supportive morally and financially, could not be expected to know what they were going through. In particular, they felt parents did not understand the importance of a social life.
A university's success in recruiting students from non-traditional backgrounds may mean that its tutors, despite having experienced student life themselves, may have difficulty communicating with students who have a background very different from their own, socially and sometimes ethnically.
In spite of their reluctance to seek support from this source, students felt that tutors in general held the key to success at university. But rather than holding to the traditional idea of reading for a degree, many expected tutors to tell them what they needed to know to pass the assessments.
One conclusion we drew is that universities should ensure students have as many opportunities as possible to mix socially when they start their degrees. Those who fail to make friends are unlikely to attend courses since their peer group is relied on for support of all kinds, from working together on assignments to moral guidance.
Since the research was carried out, the faculty has revised its tutoring scheme to include an assessed skills module with input from academic tutors. A skills support unit with a cross-faculty role has been set up and this seems to be helping non-traditional students' transition into higher education. But the project has also shown that time spent talking to first-years about their experience of university life is time well spent.
Doing exit interviews with students who withdraw may be interesting, but interviewing those who persevere with their studies is potentially much more useful in helping them avoid falling by the wayside.
Alastair Forbes is associate dean and head of tourism and Eugenia Wickens is a reader in tourism in the faculty of leisure and tourism at Buckinghamshire Chilterns University College.