Summer schools for students about to enter university can cut dropout rates dramatically, according to a study by Peter Jones and Michael Abramson of the University of Central Lancashire.
Mr Jones told the European Access Network's annual conference in Prato, Italy, last week: "The diverse body of potential students means universities must engage early and these engagements must include aspiration raising. We have to be involved in capability building to give students the wherewithal to cope with higher education.
"And we have to influence the influencers. We don't want further education lecturers telling students that only those with A levels will go to university, where they will drink copiously and campaign against the Vietnamese war. It's not 1971."
Students with non-traditional qualifications were far more likely to drop out of their studies, Mr Jones said. In 1998, the first-year dropout rate for those with advanced general national vocational qualifications was 36 per cent at the University of Central Lancashire, while the overall dropout rate was 26 per cent.
In response, the university set up a "flying start" project to support students with advanced GNVQs. Under the programme, a residential summer school was offered to all advanced GNVQ students who had received a conditional offer from the university.
The summer school consisted of a series of workshops, seminars and lectures that developed study skills and an awareness of academic conventions, while giving students information on the support structures available at the university. All food and accommodation was provided free, together with an evening social programme that included a trip to Blackpool pleasure beach and ten-pin bowling.
As part of the programmes, the university also offered a first-year module on effective learning, followed by a mentoring elective open to students who had completed the effective-learning module.
At the end of the first year of the programme, just 11 per cent of the flying-start students had dropped out compared with 22 per cent in a control group.
The students also passed with a higher than average mark and more of them went into the second year without changing course. Just 8 per cent of these students failed their exams, compared with 16 per cent in the control group.