Students need help to 'get real' about expectations of university life

There is a significant gap between would-be students' expectations of university and the realities of student life
There is a significant gap between would-be students' expectations of university and the realities of student life
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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 underestimating how much they will spend on costs such as rent, while others admit that 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 polled (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% of applicants 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 shows 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.

"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 university applicants say they feel confident about making friends at university, although nearly half (47%) have some anxiety about living with people they have not met before.

And while three in four (75%) feel confident about creating a budget for the next month, and 62% say they 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 underestimate essential costs of being at university, for example less than half (49%) think that rent will be their biggest non-tuition expense.

Mr Hillman said: "We know lots about what students think, but very little about what those applying to higher education expect to happen when they get there. We set out to fix this gap because people who expect a different student experience to the one they get are less satisfied, learn less and say they are getting less good value for money.

"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."

Richard Smith, chief executive of Unite Students, said: "The findings of this report show a number of areas in which applicants' expectations do not match up to reality.

"Coming at a time when applicants are simultaneously stressed from exams, worried, nervous and excited about moving away from home for the first time, this may have a tangible effect on the start that students make in those crucial first few weeks or months of university."

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