Students are dropping out at a higher rate than ever for obvious reasons, says Graham Lacey
Last year a record 83 per cent of leavers from Sevenoaks School acquired a place at the university of their first choice. Yet since then, another record appears to have been broken: more of them than in any previous year have returned to the school to seek help, having dropped out of the university they joined last autumn.
Indeed, there have been so many that I started to think I had not been doing my job properly. But when I rang my local grant authority office, I was informed that they, too, had been under siege from disillusioned, first-year students inquiring about the financial implications of changing course, or dropping out of university altogether.
The official university "drop-out" statistics, published by the Higher Education Statistics Agency, do not give cause for much alarm. According to the agency, there has been a slight rise from 14 per cent in 19834 to 18 per cent in 19934, figures that would compare favourably with the much higher "drop-out" rates in other countries.
Such statistics, rather like those on employment destinations of graduates, must be difficult to gather. The definition of "drop-out" must be open to interpretation.Where, for example, is the line drawn between the student being pushed out of a course, and the student dropping out of it? It is also clearly in a university's interest to do its best to suggest that its "drop-out" rate is lower than those of its rivals. The evidence that comes my way, anecdotal and circumstantial as it may be, suggests that we have a far greater problem on our hands than the figures suggest, or probably any university would care to admit.
If that is the case, then the reasons for it are not hard to find. In the past 15 years, universities have opened their doors to many more undergraduates from much wider social and academic backgrounds, so inevitably some of the students who pass through them will be academically, socially, or financially unable to cope.
Universities have bent over backwards to adjust the academic content and structure of their courses to accommodate this change. But the financial need to fill their quotas must at times have had priority over consideration of the suitability of the applicant for the chosen course.
And even if the student can stay afloat academically, there is always the possibility of sinking financially, especially if a job impinges on academic work. If there ever was a time when students were financially feather-bedded through university, it has gone.
Until recently, even if a student was experiencing financial or academic difficulties, there was always the safety net of the tutorial system. Now, as staffstudent ratios have increased, so there appears correspondingly to have developed a distance between academic staff and the students, so that the tutorial system, in which many universities used to take pride, has been stretched to breaking point. Gone are the days of evening sherry with the tutor, and a waiting shoulder to cry on when the going gets tough.
It now seems that many students are finding it increasingly difficult to to survive the Darwinian world that confronts them. Unable to meet the academic demands made on them, struggling to keep body and soul together, or unprepared for the enforced freedom life at university provides, many are sinking without trace, some eventually to reappear at their old careers adviser's door, in search of the help their university could not provide.
But before we rush to condemn government or the universities themselves, it would be worth considering what steps schools are now taking to prepare their leavers for this changed world. Sadly, far from helping to bridge the gulf, they may be broadening and deepening it.
Perhaps with their very survival depending on academic performance, schools have worked hard to ensure that their exam results match the conditions of entry the universities demand. But in so doing they have neglected the development of qualities that cannot be so easily measured.
And parents, understandably anxious for information on which they can judge a school, see exam results and a school's position in the league table as a reliable measure of a school's quality. The virtues of initiative, self-reliance and social development are not high on their shopping lists because they can not be so easily assessed and presented in neat tabular form.
The demands of the market, which schools have been forced to respect at the cost of many of the educational values they used to hold so dear, have forced teachers to act as birds filling the gaping mouths of their chicks with morsels of knowledge to be regurgitated in the exam room. There is little incentive for schools to encourage their nests' occupants to use their initiative and search on their own for intellectual nourishment in their surroundings. Yet these are precisely the qualities that our pupils need to cope with the transition between school and university.
Schools seem to be failing to equip our 18-year-olds, not just for life at university but beyond it, too. Although many employers may see impressive paper qualifications as a precondition for serious consideration, they now place more emphasis on, and channel their precious resources into testing, the sort of personal attributes that no league table can measure. Leadership, initiative, self-reliance and social maturity are the qualities most valued and which some employers may find missing in their most highly "qualified" applicants.
As academic results continue to improve at all levels, my judgment that we teachers are failing in our responsibilities may seem churlish and very harsh. But in this paradox, as in many, there may be some truth. Providing we continue to worship at the altar of the market, we run the risk of under-equipping our pupils for the hard world that awaits them beyond the school gates.
Graham Lacey is head of careers at Sevenoaks School, Sevenoaks, Kent