'Bums-on-seats' policy leads more students to drop out

July 9, 2004

Recruiting underqualified candidates to inappropriate courses is the main reason students drop out of university and college, according to research published this week.

In interviews with more than 100 early leavers at universities and colleges in the North of England, poor course selection was found to be the key factor in the decision to quit, particularly at post-1992 universities.

The study found that student debt was less of a worry among the respondents, in contrast to other studies that have shown it to be a major factor in many students' decision to quit.

The research for the Learning and Skills Council compares students' and academics' perceptions on non-completion. It suggests that the pressure on institutions to fill places, the so-called bums-on-seats policy, means increasing numbers of students end up on inappropriate courses.

The report says: "Students often felt that they had embarked upon a course that was inappropriate to their interests, abilities or needs.

"This view was mirrored by personal tutors, who suggested one reason might be that, in the current funding climate, tutors are encouraged to recruit rather than select candidates."

Many admissions tutors in new universities said they "felt pressurised" to accept students with low academic qualifications and with a lack of support from their home backgrounds.

One tutor spoke of "drafting students in to make up a cohort".

"This means that there may be a significantly larger number of students in these institutions who have non-traditional backgrounds and may have more academic difficulties," the report says.

"There was a strong feeling that a number of these students, and some of the traditional students, may be poorly prepared for the higher education experience."

The students surveyed complained that they had received inadequate advice on careers, university lifestyle and study skills because selectors had not been honest enough. Students were often left floundering because personal tutors failed to detect their problems early on, some students said.

One student said: "There was really no one I could go to apart from the separate support services and I couldn't be bothered with them. I didn't want advice. I just wanted someone who would listen to my experiences within the area of study."

Another said: "Anyway, (my tutor) was a lovely bloke but very elderly and I had nothing in common with him. I don't think he should have been a personal tutor really."

The research found the role of the personal tutor was crucial to overcoming students' difficulties, even if it was simply to offer a friendly ear.

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