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Students need help to ‘get real’ about expectations of university life – report

School-leavers are not always well-prepared for undergraduate life, the Higher Education Policy Institute has warned.

There is a significant gap between would-be students’ expectations of university and the realities of student life, a new report warns.

It suggests that many university applicants do not have a good understanding of what it will be like to study for a degree and are unclear on issues such as the time they will spend in lectures and the academic support they will get.

In addition, many are not well-prepared for higher education, with some under-estimating how much they will spend on costs such as rent, while others admit they are not confident about paying bills, or feel unprepared for living with strangers.

School-leavers need more help from schools, parents and universities to “get real” about their expectations, according to Nick Hillman, director of the Higher Education Policy Institute (HEPI), which co-published the report with Unite Students.

The study, based on a poll of more than 2,000 university applicants, found that nearly all of those questioned (95%) are ready for a demanding workload at university, assuming they will do more independent studying than they do at school.

But it also found that 60% expect to spend more time in lectures than in the classroom.

In reality, preliminary findings from a separate survey of around 6,500 current undergraduates show that just 19% say they do actually spend more time in lectures than they did in lessons.

Two-thirds (66%) of the would-be students expected to do more group work than at school, while in reality 52% of current students say this is the case, and nearly half (46%) of applicants expect to get more one-to-one support than at school, while 36% of students find this to actually be true.

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University students (David Cheskin/PA)

“Being on the cusp of higher education is a time full of anticipation and excitement,” the report says.

“Dig a little deeper, and the results show that, despite their confidence and excitement, not all applicants are well-prepared. There are some significant disparities between what they assume life is like at university and what it is actually like for most students.”

Seven in 10 (71%) of applicants say they feel confident about making friends at university, although nearly half (47%) have some anxiety about living with strangers.

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Students outside the University of Westminster (Nick Ansell/PA)

And while three in four (75%) are confident about creating a budget for the next month, and 62% feel prepared to manage their finances at university, less than half (43%) are confident about paying a bill and just 41% agree that they understand student finances well.

In addition, many applicants under-estimate essential costs of being at university; for example, less than half (49%) think rent will be their biggest non-tuition expense.

Mr Hillman said: “Schools, parents and universities, not to mention policymakers, all need to help school-leavers get real about their expectations. But, where applicants’ expectations are reasonable, the whole higher education sector needs to consider what more should be done to meet them.”

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Universities Minister Jo Johnson (Chris Radburn/PA)

Universities Minister Jo Johnson said: “People will have different expectations of a university education, but what is indisputable is the expectation for excellent teaching and a good return on their investment.”

:: The survey questioned 2,021 applicants at UK universities. It draws on preliminary findings from the Unite Students’ Student Insight Survey 2017.

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