This report details the findings from Phase 2 of the study of the first-year
experience, which focused on students who did not return in 2006-07
for the second year of full-time undergraduate study at their original
institution. It also alludes to the findings from the on-course experiences
of first-year students in the preceding academic year (Phase 1), and makes
some comparisons with a study of non-completion that was conducted in
In middle of the academic year 2005–06, students in a variety of institutions
were generally very positive about their first-year experience, judging by
some 7000 responses to the Phase 1 survey conducted roughly six months
after enrolment. There was a high level of confidence that successful
completion of the programme would result in the gaining of graduate-level
employment. However, a number of factors were identified which indicated
that, for some, student continuation was at risk, the main factors being
inadequate prior information about the programme and/or the institution,
and a concern regarding the financing of studies. Free-text responses
indicated that the social side of higher education was particularly important
to new students.
Perhaps rather surprisingly, the responses to the Phase 1 survey of students
from relatively disadvantaged backgrounds did not differ greatly from those
of their more advantaged peers. The opportunity was taken in the present
report to subject the Phase 1 data to further analyses which suggested that,
although overall differences were small, there were signs that the relatively
disadvantaged were less positive about some aspects of their experience.
The Phase 2 study consisted of a postal questionnaire to all students who
did not return for their second year at 25 varied institutions, based on 44
closed items similar to those used a decade earlier. The number of usable
responses was 462. The general pattern of responses was quite similar to
that obtained a decade ago from students who discontinued their studies in
the mid-1990s, the major influences on non-continuation being: poor choice
of programme; lack of personal commitment to study; teaching quality;
lack of contact with academic staff; inadequate academic progress; and
finance. Within this broad similarity, however, there were some hints that
the issue of contact with academic staff was becoming more significant for
continuation, and that finance was declining in significance.
Consistent with the earlier study, nearly three-quarters of the respondents
either had already re-engaged, or intended to re-engage with, higher education.
The responses were analysed with respect to different demographic
variables: qualitative findings are presented in this report, with detailed
statistics being available on the Higher Education Academy’s website
(www.heacademy.ac.uk). The inclusion on the survey form of spaces for
students to write freely about their personal experiences encouraged
some vivid descriptions of experience which, while not necessarily
representative, complement the statistical analyses of the responses to
the closed questions.
The findings of Phase 2 are discussed with reference to the possibility of
the enhancement of the student experience. Some aspects, such as the
adoption of teaching approaches that actively engage students from the
outset, are within institutions’ compass. Others, such as the choice-making
of potential students, are partially amenable to institutional interventions.
The projected downturn in the number of young people in the UK from
around 2011 suggests that, for some institutions at least, a clear focus on
the first-year experience of students will be vital.