Agony aunt

December 8, 2000

Q: As a tutor, I am the first port of call for students who are unhappy with their courses and want to switch. What advice can I give them?

Andrew West , Senior assistant registrar, student services department, University of Sheffield

A: First of all, tell your tutees not to panic and make a snap decision. Courses last three or four years, so it is important that they end up following a programme that is right for them.

Encourage students to talk through why they are unhappy and whether it is something significant enough to mean they should consider changing tack or whether it is just a problem with a particular module or lecture series.

If the student is adamant he or she wants to change, they must think carefully about the alternatives. Suggest that they look through the university prospectus and consider options. They should go to the departments they are interested in and speak to the admissions tutor to check whether their academic profile would fit the entry requirements for a different course. They could also look at the departmental webpage and speak to other students to find out their experiences of the course they are considering.

An adviser in the student union might be able to assist. If there is a faculty office or central university academic advisory service, that might be a useful port of call for some "impartial" advice. Depending on the student's career aspirations, it could also be helpful to have a word with a careers adviser about any new course they are considering.

There may be deadlines, meaning that students cannot change course after a certain point in the year. Their tutee would need to find out what these are and whether there is any way around them. On the other hand, it might well be sensible for the student to defer any change until the start of the next term, or even the start of the next year, when modules and lectures will be starting up again from the beginning, and they are likely to get a better introduction to the new area of work. In fact, it might be necessary to wait until the next year if the student is looking to transfer to a popular course where all the places have been taken.

If your tutee is undecided but knows that he or she does not wish to continue with their course, they could consider a period of "leave of absence", which means that they stay on the university books and have time to think and consider options. It is sometimes far better than simply withdrawing.

The student might also be thinking about changing institution. This needs to be considered carefully - if the student is not enjoying their course here, would they get on better elsewhere, while having to cope with settling into another city and arranging housing, making friends and so on?

There are possible financial implications, and students need to make sure about these before making a final decision. An adviser in the student union or in a central administrative office in the university will probably be able to help them. The student should also contact their local education authority if they are dependant on financial support that the local education authority administers.

Finally, if the student has firmly decided to change, there will probably be some paperwork to fill in, both at your university and with your LEA. Make sure the student does not forget to do this, to avoid any problems or confusion later.

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