Teesside University researcher Diane Nutt was not surprised when her study of student drop-outs found that many had complex reasons for leaving.
When she dropped out of a Nottingham Trent University humanities degree herself at the age of 19, she told her tutors it was because she was on the wrong course. But she now realises that a combination of factors led her to make that decision.
She said: "I was not happy at the university or in the city, and I felt I didn't have many friends. I think it was the wrong time for me to do a degree. I went into it straight from school, and sometimes that is not the right time for people to enter higher education."
Eleven years later, and after seven years of helping students in her job at Lancaster University's bookshop, she felt ready to tackle a new degree programme. She went on to take a sociology PhD and gained an academic post at Teesside.
Dr Nutt felt her personal experience was a good example of one striking conclusion in a new report on her research findings - that institutions and students should realise that dropping out is sometimes better than trying to continue in the wrong circumstances.
Her report, Retaining Non-traditional Students in Higher Education , based on interviews with 800 Teesside students, argues that "leaving higher education should not necessarily be perceived as failure, indeed for many students leaving or suspending their studies is an appropriate choice at a particular time.
"This is important to recognise not just from the student's perspective, but also from the institutional perspective; both in terms of a university's reputation and in terms of job satisfaction for the institution's staff."
Despite this, institutions have a clear responsibility to help students remain on their courses if they can, particularly at stressful times such as starting a first placement, during examinations, and when facing significant changes in their lives, her report says.
Students from non-traditional backgrounds who are the first in their families to go to university are more likely to be unprepared for these critical times.
Teesside's retention team has been awarded £250,000 by the European Social Fund to disseminate its research findings.
Dr Nutt's report is to be circulated to all UK institutions next month.
Dr Nutt's report offers the following tips to help institutions reduce their dropout rates:
- Encourage students to interact socially with their peers
- Increase support and contact with part-time students
- Improve feedback to students across the board
- Offer part-timers and postgraduates tailored inductions
- Identify and address timetabling and communication problems