Today's student cohort 'not less intellectual, just different'

April 6, 2007

Universities are failing to help new students bridge the gap between their A-level study habits and the academic demands of a degree course, administrators were told this week.

Concerns have been growing among academics about what they see as poor study skills among students and the difficulty many have with even the most basic tasks, such as essay-writing.

But according to Michelle Morgan, teaching and learning researcher and co-ordinator at Kingston University, the problem is more the fault of higher education institutions than schools or students.

This is because universities have failed to adjust to changes in the way A levels are taught, the way sixthformers learn and differences in the kinds of study skills today's university entrants have compared with school and college leavers ten years ago.

Ms Morgan, who led a workshop on "understanding and managing student expectations" at the Association of University Administrators annual conference in Nottingham this week, told The Times Higher : "To provide a good student experience we have to do more to understand and manage student expectations.

"Today's students are very different, and our old ways of working with them are no longer acceptable. Universities need to adjust to the type of student that is coming in and realise they are not less intellectual, just different. With today's A levels, they are given a bundle of information, and do not necessarily learn how to take a book off the shelf and turn what they read into an essay.

"Institutions have failed to catch up with that change or to put measures in place to bridge the gap between what sort of study demands students expect and what they find at university."

Academics and administrators need to work together to find ways to address the problem, such as building study skills lessons into every degree module, she suggested. Institutions should also do more to manage the expectations of students and parents about university life in general, she added.

"At the moment, we do not explain well to students what they can expect in a university experience academically, socially and economically. And we do not correct unrealistic and inaccurate expectations that may have been set by parents who went to university 20 years ago," she said.

Frank Furedi, professor of sociology at Kent University who led a plenary session at the conference, said: "I am very worried about arguments that universities should change their expectations of students because schools are now different. That suggests universities should become more like further education colleges."

Association of University Administrators' conference roundup

  • Universities have become so bogged down with the complexity and red tape of new equality rules that they are struggling to address key equal opportunities issues proactively, according to Nicola Dandridge, chief executive of the Equality Challenge Unit. Ms Dandridge, who led an equality workshop at the AUA conference, said: "At the moment institutions are responding in a rather reactive way by running through the legal requirements of each strand, rather than looking more closely at the causes behind some of the issues, such as the lack of women occupying senior positions in HE."
  • Many university administrators and academics need to brush up on the basics of how to apply for a job if they want to get appointed to a senior post. Southampton University secretary and registrar John Lauwerys said applicants for senior positions often failed to do their homework on the post or the institution offering the job, did not think about what they might be doing in ten years' time and neglected to tell referees that they had been included in the application.
  • Jo Kan, an organisational development consultant who led a "how to network" workshop at the conference, offered the following tips: know what sort of people you want to meet; make conversations brief, but memorable; get as much networking practice as you can.

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