UK: University life is one big 'expectation vs reality' experience for new students
Is this the real life? Source: Shutterstock

There’s a major disconnect between a student’s expectation of what his or her higher education experience will be like and what eventually becomes reality, a new study has revealed, prompting researchers to call for a smoother transition to university life.

The mismatched expectations and realities pervade all areas of university life, from teaching hours to student halls as well as mental health and well-being, according to Reality Check: A report on university applicants’ attitudes and perceptionsproduced by the Higher Education Policy Institute (HEPI) and Unite Students.

Much is known about what students think, but not so when it comes to what those applying to higher education expect to happen when they get there, says HEPI director Nick Hillman.

“We set out to fix this gap because students who expect a different experience to the one they get are less satisfied, learn less and say they are getting less good value for money,” Hilman said.

The study surveyed more than 2,000 young people on a number of specific areas where their expectations do not correspond with reality.

In one key finding, researchers found 60 percent of university go-ers expect to spend more time in lectures than they had in secondary school. However, only 19 percent of students found this to be the case.

They also expect more group work, one-to-one time and career-planning support, but these materialised less than foreseen.

Unite Students CEO Richard Smith says: “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 students make in those crucial first few weeks or months of university.”

More than a third (37 percent) of those with mental health issues have declared, or intend to declare their condition with their prospective universities.

While confident about making friends in a new situation, almost half are less sure about living with people they have never met before. LGBT applicants are less confident about making friends than their heterosexual peers.

Money-wise, less than half are confident about paying a bill and only 41 percent say they have a grip on student finances. Many underestimate the expenses involved with uni life.

In light of these results, more should be done to prepare school-leavers for their next big chapter in life, such as clearer communication pre-arrival as well interacting and engaging more with students on these issues.

For example, more specific information on face-to-face teaching time, as well as where student welfare and the mental health services are available, should be provided, too.

Smith hopes the report will cue “thoughtful and considered response” where “universities, schools, policy-makers and accommodation providers alike” can work together to help young people to get the most out of their time at university.

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