Expectations and Transition

A young person leaving for university may be unprepared for what they are about to face

By Jenny Shaw and Amy Lobl 

In Unite Students’ 2013 survey The Next Generation one student said: “The adjustment was a lot harder than expected – I miss my family, my house, general home comforts a lot more than I expected to.”

Another reflected: “I don’t feel like anyone tells you about the sudden wave of doubt and fear you have when you start university.” 

Before arriving at their new home prospective students have expectations about the coming experience. They draw this from a number of sources: friends, brothers or sisters who have been to university, the media’s portrayal of the ‘halls’ lifestyle and from their university’s own marketing material. 

The new student builds a picture – usually a very happy and social one – in which they meet lifelong friends, have legendary parties and settle into a home-away-from-home.

They are positive about the whole thing. In the 2014 Students Matter survey, over nine out of 10 applicants believed ‘making friends’ would be one of the benefits of living with other students, and 76% believed that they would feel ‘well integrated’ with the students they live with.

If this expectation is not met if – for example – housemates are unfriendly or not their ‘kind of person’ it can drastically affect their experience.

In the Students Matter survey, only four in 10 students felt well integrated with their housemates. Remember – nine out of 10 believed they would ‘make friends’. That leaves half not seeing their expectations met. International students face the further challenge of culture shock.

This can have a huge impact on the student’s resolve to attend lectures, strive for academic success – or even stay at the university altogether.

In the HE Academy’s ‘Retention and Success: What Works?’ study, feelings of isolation and not fitting-in were found to be an important factor in students’ decisions to leave university. 

Conversely, a good transition experience gives students opportunities to learn about themselves and others, and a strong foundation for other learning – academic and non-academic. 

This is where a supportive halls environment can really make a difference. Halls offer an opportunity to engage students in a designed programme of transition which anticipates and addresses these transition needs.

‘A number of universities recruit returning students, postgraduates or mature students to live and work within halls and support students after hours with their wellbeing, emotional and social needs’

A number of universities recruit returning students, postgraduates or mature students to live and work within halls and support students after hours with their wellbeing, emotional and social needs. 

In private purpose-built student accommodation, a similar role is often taken by the staff. At Unite Students, teams provide a series of transition events, activities and interventions aimed at first year students. These are designed to help students settle into their accommodation, make friends, get to grips with living independently, and to establish good living and study habits to promote mental wellbeing. 

In Bristol, a joint project between Unite Students and the two students’ unions ensures all new students are visited by trained ‘settle-in’ teams in their first week. This project has measurably decreased drop-out and increased student satisfaction. 

Transition to university life is usually discussed in relation to academic factors; and these are, of course, important. Even so, the lifestyle change for students who move away from home is dramatic, and it cannot be assumed that all students will be equipped to make this transition. 

Social transition receives little policy attention and virtually no research. It does, however, seem likely that purposeful social as well as academic transition programmes could improve retention, achievement and engagement. 

The halls environment offers an opportunity to address this, and an effectively designed transition programme could save students from mental distress, academic under-achievement and drop-out. 

Jenny Shaw is head of student services at Unite Students and chair of the Unite Foundation. 

Amy Lobl has worked in the higher education sector for over 5 years, at institutions including SOAS and University of Oslo. She currently lives and works in Nairobi, Kenya as Country Manager for Uganda at Uniserv Education.

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