Four in every ten students in Australia are significantly less successful in their first year at university than they were in their final year at school and up to half drop out of some courses.
The sense of alienation that many students new to university feel was shown in a recent study that found at least a third of those in their first year do not feel particularly connected - academically or socially - to their university.
Many among the 4,000 students surveyed by researchers at Melbourne University's Centre for the Study of Higher Education expressed negative views of the teaching they were offered, the courses they were undertaking and even the university in which they were enrolled.
Only half thought their subjects were interesting and slightly more than half believed their lecturers were enthusiastic about the subjects or were particularly good at explaining things.
The study covered 4,028 students in seven universities across Australia, case-study interviews with 60 staff and 120 students, and a survey of all universities that sought information about the range of activities intended to assist newcomers.
The researchers described school-leavers as a particularly "problematic group", noting that they were less certain of their roles than their older peers, less diligent in their study habits and less academically oriented.
Despite up to 13 years of education already behind them, about a third said they were not ready to choose a university course while two-thirds thought university was more demanding than school and 45 per cent said the standard was higher than they expected.
Yet academics who were surveyed blamed students for the problems they experienced and many believed increasing numbers of students were leaving school less well prepared for tertiary studies.
The study said, however, there was clear evidence of the need for improved teaching and that this could be achieved simply and effectively by attention to pedagogical fundamentals. Two issues were central: early and clear communication of expected outcomes and provision of timely diagnostic feedback.
Robert Pargetter, deputy vice chancellor at Monash University, says widespread problems during the transition from school to university can be devastating for individuals and families and was a huge social and economic waste.
School students could be better prepared for life on campus by schools providing modules in the students' final three years using university resources such as guest lecturers, academics in residence and interactive television programmes. Lecturers could also "temper the rate of pedagogical change" by providing a first semester that was more accessible to new students. "Relating assessment to subject objectives, provision of assessment criteria and more clearly specified tasks and resources seem obvious and essential moves," Professor Pargetter said.