The sadness of dropping out

According to the government, 22% of students in UK Higher Education are dropping out before completing their degree.

Sad as that may be, I can well believe it.

I’ve long felt that if it hadn’t been for my year off before studying at uni, I may have felt unhappy, isolated, and out of my depth.  My mindset was not yet focusing in the right direction. But because I took a year out both to improve my A-Level grades and to discover university life from an outsider’s perspective, my entire view was changed for the better.

Unfortunately, not everyone gets the same kind of chance I did.  That’s part of the reason behind TheUniversityBlog.  With the right attitude and understanding, students from any background can achieve fantastic results and realise their dreams, no matter what institution they may be at.

22% of students dropping out isn’t too bad when you compare it with figures around the world.  But that doesn’t make it good news.  In fact, any dropping out, no matter where it is in the world, is sad in my view.

At the news of 22% drop out rates, the NUS President, Gemma Tumelty, said the following:

“…we are calling for a national exit survey of students who decide not to continue their course.”

She added:

“It is worrying that those institutions which are most successful at widening participation are also the ones that struggle most with retention.”

Firstly, I think a national exit survey – if executed properly – would help highlight the different reasons why individuals choose to leave.  Based on my own experiences while at uni, there are bound to be a number of reasons.

Most dropping out will likely be due to:

  • not being ready for uni yet;
  • the shock of living independently, away from home;
  • unsuitable course;
  • didn’t even want to come to university, but felt pushed;
  • not having got to grips with social and extra-curricular side of university;
  • lacking personal feedback and communication with staff.

There are a multitude of reasons, but I expect the majority rest one way or another within these six categories.

£800million has been invested by the government to provide support universities in retaining students.  That money has done nothing to retain a higher percentage of students.  Levels have been consistent for a number of years.

The problem isn’t about money.  It’s about communication and attitude.  It’s also about developing mindsets so that individuals can make the most of their uni and develop themselves based on their unique interests.  I fear that many individuals out there could have found a better experience if only the right tools had been given to them.

Widening participation is a fabulous idea, but it needs more structure around it.  It’s not good enough to attract a student who wouldn’t normally have considered university and then expect life to be wonderful.  The initiation and shaping needs to be ongoing.  I wanted to go to university when I didn’t feel ready for it; so imagine how it feels to go when you’re not really that bothered about the prospect!

Joan Bakewell says in today’s Independent, “Many [potential students] are simply bewildered by the abundance of courses available, with little concept of where they might lead”.  It’s true that many young adults don’t know what they want to do.  I certainly didn’t when I was 18.  Neither did Joan Bakewell.  The majority don’t know where things are going to lead at 18 years of age.

For some, university won’t even be the way to go.  I’d argue that it’s positive for most when the right balance and skills are maintained, but I’ve seen people pushed toward uni when they have ambitious plans set out in their mind that don’t involve Higher Education.  A lucky individual with plans doesn’t deserve to be stifled like that.  They’re young enough to bounce back, even if their goals don’t come to fruition.

Are some people being pushed too early?  Is communication being ignored over marketing?  Where did so much money (£800million) go to make no difference?  What can help retain students?  In fact, what can help a student’s attitude so that they don’t need to reach the point of questioning whether or not they’ve made the right choice?


  1. I think we as a country would benefit greatly if education was spread out more evenly throughout a person’s life and not rammed together as it is now.
    We go straight through our education system with no breaks (usually) as a prequel to getting a job. We approach it as if education is something to get through when really we should look at education as a life-long experience.
    I wish I had had the advice and support not to have rushed headlong into a degree, an MA and then a PGCE, all before I had turned 23.
    I feel sure I would have got so much more out of these periods if I had had breaks from learning. Instead of which it became very much about the qualifications at the ends of the courses rather than what I was learning along the way.
    A good five year period after A’Levels, working, would really hone what it is a person would like to study and would certainly make them appreciative of the space to learn and the university environment (both of which so easily taken for granted by students straight from school).
    We may then find we have a much more truly educated and fulfilled workforce.

  2. Good point, LJ. I think it’s great that you achieved so much before you were even 23 years old, but I do agree with you that you may have enjoyed the learning process more if all your courses weren’t bunched together.

    If I hadn’t experienced a gap in education myself – albeit only a minor gap – I believe my life would be unrecognisable compared to the way I am today.

    As you suggest, an enthusiastic learner can be fulfilled, no matter how old they happen to be. If a person learns because they wish to engage their brain, the sky’s the limit.

    The process of learning is totally different if a course is only being completed because of the qualification at the end of it. The further you go, the better the job prospects, sure. But how fulfilling is it all?

    At the same time, I sincerely hope you do feel fulfilled in your education. And in whatever capacity, I hope you enjoy the benefits of life-long learning. When treated well, academia is full of win!

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