A recent report by the Higher Education Authority examining student progression in third level from 1st to 2nd year showed overall rates of non-progression at 15%. One in six third-level students drop out of their course during the first year. The overall figure of 15% is described as being favourably comparable to international rates. The real story lies behind a superficial reading of these statistics.
There is a great variation in the fallout from university for Irish students. Non-progression rates are highest for courses in the construction industry, computer sciences and engineering. These drop-out levels are highest where these courses are offered at institutes of technology. There is a strong link between students’ performance at Leaving Cert level and the likelihood of progressing successfully to completion of a degree at third level. Low achievers at the Leaving Cert are more likely to drop-out. There is also a strong socio-economic link between non-progression and family background. Those from farming family backgrounds and from higher professional groups are more likely to succeed.
The problem of drop-out at third level is an important one. The economic and personal cost of drop-out is substantial. The question is: should we be doing more about this, and if so, what?
There are 3 common responses to the issue which have a bearing on mental health.
The first response is, in my view, a complacent one. This is to say that the overall rates of drop-out are acceptable since they appear to have comparability with international norms. In reality, the variance between the institutions and the scale of loss of educational progression indicate a problem which cannot be ignored.
The second response is a reactionary one. This is to say the issue is important, but we can address it by making changes of one kind or another with the Leaving Certificate entrance to university. We can bemoan the lack of study skills in our young third-level students or indeed blame the primary and secondary level systems for their inability to prepare people for a Darwinian system of third-level education. In reality, this approach simply ignores the problem and is unlikely to achieve substantial improvements. Indeed, partial changes to one or other element of our educational system, however necessary, will not address the overall issue, which is complex.
The third approach is to acknowledge the complexity of the crisis affecting our young people, and in particular in this case, our young people attending university. A complex response to this challenge begins with acknowledging the 21st century difficulties experienced by our young people. One third of our young people suffers a mental health disorder between the ages of 14-18. The NUS/UK survey has shown us that more than three quarters of students are experiencing mental health issues within their first year of college and that at least a third have considered taking their own life. Levels of alcohol abuse and substance misuse are very high amongst our young people. The problem is similar in the UK, where the chief executive of the Office for Students, Ms Nicola Dandridge, was recently quoted as saying: “It is impossible not to be concerned at the scale and seriousness of distress, anxiety and depression amongst our third-level students”.
The difficulties experienced by our young people in university also reflect their maturity. The liberty and license provided at university along with the expectations of autonomy and self-care represent a dramatic step change from the atmosphere and expectations of second-level education. Recent experts have proposed that adulthood in human beings is not achieved before the early 20’s. The 21st century experience for young people involves some dramatic and novel challenges.
“The demands of the 21st century require a new approach to education to fully prepare students for college, career, and citizenship”. This is a quotation taken from those advocating what is known as a “whole child approach to education”. It is recognised that in secondary school, we need to prepare our young people, ensuring that each of them is healthy, safe, engaged, supported and challenged. A new approach to education known as a “whole child approach” would be more helpful in developing and preparing students for the challenges and opportunities of adulthood, including college. This involves a conversation about education that is “less narrowly defined” and instead aims to promote long-term development and success of our young people.
Our universities need to be learning environments equipped for this whole person agenda. Learning is about more than simply applying a narrow sense of curriculum. A good example of a successful initiative along these lines at third-level has been described by Owen Ross, head of Athlone Institute of Technology’s department of business and management. It is clear that for him, retention is a clear strategic priority. At Athlone, they have made changes to the way they manage their students journey, providing individual assignments early on, and helping students to become independent learners by developing the best possible habits for their health and overall wellbeing as well as their engagement with the course at hand. The success at Athlone is described as creating a momentum and a hunger for more success.
The problem of third-level drop-out is indicative of many complex issues but it is not beyond our ingenuity to solve. It requires a complex, multidisciplinary response involving an engagement with the best research around education and health. There is a need for recognition of the real needs of the individuals we are raising and the importance of helping them prepare for our future.
Professor Jim Lucey MD (Dublin), PhD (London), FRCPI, FRCPsych, Medical Director at St. Patricks Mental Health Services and Clinical Professor of Psychiatry at Trinity College, Dublin University was on Today With Sean O'Rourke on Tuesday 13 November 2018
Prof Jim Lucey
Prof. Jim Lucey was Medical Director of St Patrick’s Mental Health Services, Dublin, from 2008 to 2019. He is Clinical Professor of Psychiatry at Trinity College Dublin. He has been working for more than 30 years with patients suffering from mental health problems. In addition to medical management, he maintains his clinical practice at St Patrick`s, where he specialises in the assessment, diagnosis and management of Obsessive Compulsive Disorder (OCD) and other anxiety disorders. He gives public lectures and is a regular broadcaster on mental health matters on RTÉ radio, featuring on ‘Today with Sean O’Rourke’.
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