Getting into university is very important, but so too isactually staying there. An unacceptable number of students seem to bestruggling with the second part of the equation. According to recent figuresfrom the Department of Education, one in five quit within the first year andabout one in three drop out within five.
What on earth is going on here? What can universities do toaddress it?
In many ways, poor retention rates are nothing new. Thetransition from school to university has always been a bumpy ride. Schools aresmall, familiar environments, in which kids get more attention and coddling.Teachers know your name and ensure that you meet deadlines and can hand out detentionfor those times that you don’t. Parents are there to pester you too, not tomention provide food, cash and clothes.
Universities, on the other hand, are hugely impersonal, withtens of thousands of students being the norm. Lectures theatres can contain hundredsof kids, and the lecturer won’t know or care if you’re not one of them. Youwon’t get into trouble if you don’t hand in your assignments, skip tutorials,or spend all week at a pub. You won’t necessarily just be given neat answers ona plate – or, indeed, food.
All sorts of other factors come into play, of course. Somekids are simply burnt out after working so hard through Year 12, or find thefreedoms of adulthood just a bit too much fun. Others sign up for the wrong sort of course, or a job that takes up too much of their time. A degree is along-term and time-consuming commitment and, in the meantime, bills still needto be paid.
However, these factors are all outside universities’ control.What they can control is theuniversity experience. Good Education Guide’sresearch suggests that Australia’ssmaller universities — those with 20,000students or less — tend to provide plenty of support and a positive campusexperience. Our bigger universities are struggling on that front – in many waysthrough no fault of their own. There’s nothing lonelier than a crowd, as someoneonce put it, so it’s easy to see how the feeling of being lost, ignored orjust-a-little-bit-too-free could be exacerbated when there’s 40,000 students oncampus.
Perhaps one solution would be to turn that weakness into astrength by providing more opportunities for peer-to-peer mentoring. From basiclife skills like boiling an egg to the complicated business of balancing work,fun and study, there’s no better teacher than someone who’s still learning and,so far, has been learning well.
Second-, third- and fourth-year students know what it takesto make it that far. Australia’s biggest universities should consider payingfor peer-to-peer mentoring and there’s no reason why it can’t be done over abeer. With one in five first years dropping out every year, ensuring that thereare familiar faces on campus could well be a wise investment.