It’s that familiar time of year when everyone’s fretting over the freshers. Parents watching anxiously as children fly the nest to begin new, adult lives of their own. Teaching staff wondering how best to set high academic expectations without scaring the wits out of the nervous new arrivals. The Vice–Chancellor’s team worrying about the heightened risk of drop-out at this notoriously precarious transition period.
For most undergraduates, the move to university will represent a first major life transition. As well as managing new academic demands, most will be dealing with new friendship groups, domestic responsibilities, financial management and all the excitement of creating an independent life in a new location.
“First-time students have full control over their whole lives and this can be overwhelming” says Hannah Morrish, Student Choice and HE Lead at The Student Room Group “Moving out of home can be tricky, as can sharing a living space 24/7 with other people who may have very different expectations around routine and even cleanliness.”
Added to this, new research finds that UK students are more anxious than their international counterparts by many measures. Published last month, Sodoxo’s International University Lifestyle Survey 2017 finds that nearly a third of UK students have considered quitting their university course, which is higher than in any other country. They are also the world’s most concerned that they won’t get the degree class they want and most likely to report struggles in making friends.
While it’s difficult to pinpoint the reasons for this anxiety, the report suggests it could be linked to the new focus on teaching, learning and student experience brought by TEF, which may have diverted attentions away from pastoral care and holistic support. Anxiety over debt at graduation is also mentioned, with UK students now facing a greater debt burden than students in many other countries. It’s perhaps notable too that while 46% of UK students report loneliness during their time at university (compared to just 32% globally), 60% avoid going out with friends to save money.
How then can we support students through the precarious first term and help to relieve some of their anxieties as they settle in?
1.Focus on relationships
We know from the Paul Hamlyn Foundation What works? initiative focusing on student success and retention that it’s essential that universities promote personal human relationships. Giving students an early point of contact is helpful, the report suggests, so they have at least one person to turn to from the beginning. Relationships can also be developed through personal tutoring, regular office hours and friendly, approachable staff.
Formalised peer relationships are effective too. For instance, it’s often worth establishing quality peer mentoring schemes and academic study groups, as well as investing time into helping new students find out about clubs and societies.
2. Make use of data analytics
People are often wary of data analytics but, when used carefully, we can better identify struggling or disengaged students. If, for instance, Callum has attended only 50% of lectures, failed to log onto the VLE, and accessed no set texts through his Kortext bookshelf, a staff member can swiftly investigate possible causes and arrange follow-up support, encouragement or other targeted interventions.
3. Provide targeted support for at-risk student groups
Since we know that the risk of dropout is higher than average in certain student groups, it’s worth establishing some proactive sources of support. For instance, knowing from HEFCE research that mature students are at a greater risk of dropping out, universities might offer flexible timetabling, distance learning modules or on-site childcare provision. Many institutions offer additional financial support to those with additional caring responsibilities and Kingston University now pay students to work as ‘buddies’ to overseas students.
Overall, UK universities work hard to support their students and do an excellent job at retaining them. But with new pressures placed both on students and staff, the human touch is perhaps now more important than ever.