Enrol, turn off, drop out

September 1, 1995

Universities and schools are investing time and money to encourage pupils to apply to higher education. Yet, those pupils who find themselves in academic difficulties are complaining that the support they need is not available. Two students who have dropped out explain why institutions' failure to confront their dissatisfaction with academia, rather than any financial problems, has led them to leave.

And two pupils who have been encouraged to consider higher education reveal fears and concerns about university. Both come from what are considered "non-traditional access schools" and have therefore been targeted by institutions.

Bert Johnston, a former chief inspector of schools who has been closely involved in Dundee University's attempts to attract students from non-traditional backgrounds, says that there is an attempt by institutions to improve advice provision. "We're at the stage where we're beginning to develop a structure, but I doubt many universities have the same level of guidance as schools. A lot of kids don't speak in the same way as big institutions." Meanwhile some students slip through the net.

Eric McNaught dropped out of a course in mechanical engineering at Paisley University recently. He had intended to go to Aberdeen to do an HND, but accommodation problems forced him to find a course nearer home. He only completed two years of the four-year course.

"I never did Higher physics and I found it difficult to be just dropped into university like that," he said. "The main reason I stayed was that I was in the air squadron."

However, he doesn't feel that he has lost out in any way. "People think that because you've dropped out you must be really dumb. I just want to use my skills more practically. It's hard to stick at something you're not interested in."

Although his parents and friends were very supportive Mr McNaught did not receive any expert help: "Nobody came to me and said 'We think you have a problem', I wasn't really given any advice by anyone at the university."

He is now working full-time and is applying for jobs. He does not consider his time at university to have been wasted, and says that he may well return to education in the future. "At university I took so much on too quickly without really thinking about it. I believe I will go back into higher education, but this time in the right circumstances."

Chris Hoffland dropped out in his third year of a computer studies degree at Edinburgh University last year. Prior to university he had attended his local secondary school in Fife. He hopes to return to his course next year, but just now he is working full-time. When he arrived at university Mr Hoffland expected "a straight run through". However, after a while he realised that his priorities had changed.

"My career expectations changed completely, now I'm unsure about the course. I thought I'd be able to enjoy it the whole way through, but I haven't." He says that when he first considered dropping out there seemed to be no support available to him. Later he realised that there was advice available, but "I had to go looking for it myself. They weren't in any way pro-active".

Although he officially dropped out because of "stress", Mr Hoffland believes that his extra-curricular activity was the major factor in his dropping out. He was editor of a student newspaper, as well as being on the Students Representative Council. However, he says, he does not regret the time he spent on these and other projects. "I would do it all again," he says. "That stuff is going to be more relevant to me later on than my course."

He believes the skills that make him employable have very little to do with his degree. Although he does intend to complete his course, it is with little enthusiasm: "It's just a piece of paper that says I'm hardworking and clever. The subject and the degree don't matter."

Angela Morrison has just started a sixth year at St Andrews Secondary School in the east end of Glasgow. She applied to universities last year on the strength of her Highers but has decided to stay on at school for an extra year before going on to study law at Glasgow University. She believes that many people rush into university without thinking. "University is not a place to go just to be a student," she says. "You have to have a responsible and mature attitude. People who go from fifth year don't have that."

Ms Morrison has been involved in the mentoring project at Glasgow University. The project aims to encourage applications from non-traditional access schools like St Andrews. She says that the help the scheme has offered has been invaluable. "It's very important to have that personal contact." She says that when she decided she wanted to do law at Glasgow some people, including one teacher, questioned her ability to gain access to an "elite" course from a school in the east end of Glasgow. She argues: "Where you come from doesn't affect your ability, just your attitude to it. It's just a case of believing in yourself. There is probably not a single child at St Aloysius (a leading Glasgow independent school) who doesn't think they could go to university."

Angela also thinks that the fact that her family have been positive about higher education has helped enormously. She doubts whether without a supportive family and the help of the mentoring project she would be able to be so confident about going to university. She doesn't imagine that it will be easy, but she is looking forward to it. "I know I'm capable," she says.

Marion Johnston left St Margaret Mary's Secondary in Glasgow recently. She had originally intended to do a sixth year, with a view to applying to university. However, despite encouragement from Glasgow University's programme for non-traditional access schools, she has decided to go straight to teacher training instead. She says that higher education interested her, but she was attracted by teaching and the chance to leave school earlier.

Her parents' support has been important because "at my school most people only do modules. Now that I've left there will only be six people in sixth year".

She did visit university open days and says she "liked the university atmosphere". She would also like to "broaden her options" but she is unsure whether she will ever go to university. She might think about it - "if I can't get a job".

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