Generation drop-out: how do universities better support students?

University drop-outs: Alan Slavik looks at what HE can do to better protect those most vulnerable at university

For many, it’s the accomplishment of a dream years in the making. From the very start of our teenage years, university looms on the horizon as the endgame: the world of higher education, where you find your academic calling, and springboard your career. 

So why, as the Press Association reported in January, are university drop-outs so dramatically on the rise? Why is it that the next generation of highly skilled, highly educated graduates are floundering in the university system? And how can universities better protect those most vulnerable?

Start with welfare support… but don’t stop there

Quite rightly, there has been a forensic spotlight shone upon student welfare of late. Mental health awareness has grown across all aspects of society with good reason. Universities, for their part, have increasingly made efforts to increase their mental health support and wellbeing services. Appropriate funding has surged at a number of institutions, with the University of Bristol among a handful of institutions spending over £1m on welfare support. 

Of course, this is far from a fait accompli. There remains a lot of work to do, and calls for the provision of sufficient mental health services to be legally binding carry a compelling weight. 

Yet while better mental health services are without doubt crucial, there are no guarantees that this would help tackle the problem of high university drop-outs rates. In fact, some feel that the result of this spotlight on mental health may serve to normalise dropping out from university. 

Of course, there is nothing shameful about this, but if universities want to support students through to the completion of their HE journey, other solutions must be found. 

university drop-outs

Let students go home… without consequences

Where universities can continue to make substantial progress is by providing students with the opportunity to tap into the family pressure valve. 

Moving to university far from home, with the average student relocating as far as 91 miles away, can bring significant challenges as well as new opportunities. 

For tens of thousands of students each year, going to university will be the first time they’ve spent a sustained period of time away from home. Multiply this by the social and academic pressures put on them during university, and it is easy to understand why, according to the Mental Health Foundation, 15,000 first year students suffered from poor mental health in the 2015/16 year.  

Universities can make a real difference at this point by offering students flexible learning opportunities which afford them the possibility of returning home, when needed. This way, students will no longer be punished for taking much-needed breaks from gruelling social schedules. Attendance need not suffer if students feel the need to recuperate and mentally regroup from the security of their home, with the support of their family. Learning platforms and online modules, which allow students to attend lectures and engage with peers from home, are readily available for universities investing in modern edtech. 

Affording students that degree of freedom gives them a crucial way to breathe without sacrificing academic progress. Universities are now less often constrained by the impracticality and unreliability of legacy technology, meaning that the technology opportunity is now there for all to take.

  For tens of thousands of students each year, going to university will be the first time they’ve spent a sustained period of time away from home  

… And don’t forget the point

But universities don’t need to stop there. 

Whether studying from home, or attending every lecture in person, students are still investing significant sums in their education. The return on investment is clear for those with a firm idea of their intended career path. But, for many, university is simply the logical next step in their lives as they continue to explore long-term career options.

For these students, the value of university needs to be clearly established. If it’s not subject-specific knowledge that students are obtaining, then it’s crucial to demonstrate how the transferable skills garnered in university will contribute to employability and ongoing learning more broadly. 

And, in addition to transferable traits such as applied knowledge and collaboration, graduates need to be prepared in basic tech skills to make the jump to the modern workplace, and not be left blindsided by inexperience with pervasive computer programs and tech processes. 

The bridge from HE to workplace also needs to be addressed. The most savvy institutions are already leveraging their considerable influence in local communities, and offering students tangible work experience. Furthermore, ever-growing and expansive alumni communities and professional networks are providing students with an invaluable chance to ‘try on’ different lines of work before taking their first career steps upon graduating. 

Better connected

Universities have undoubtedly made great strides in addressing university drop-outs rates and increasing the perceived value of university courses. However, there is more to be done – and learning technology, which can enrich the education experience, as well as giving students the flexibility to ‘escape’ the university pressure bubble, will be an important enabler. Furthermore, this enabling technology can be a vital cog in providing students with better connections – in terms of skills and opportunities – to the jobs that could define their futures.  

Alan Slavik is head of development across EMEA for online learning platform Canvas: 

You might also like: Pioneering student mental health project launches for integrated care

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