It is the great university purge.
The university census date arrives on Monday, when students can drop out without having to pay fees.
Nationwide, nearly one in five domestic students will probably leave their studies by the end of their first year. Up to 13,000 of these undergraduates change courses or institutions, latest Department of Education figures show, but more than 27,000 first-year students abandon their university dreams.
Detour: Olivia Stock left her UNSW course to join a design college. Photo: James Brickwood
They blame unhappiness with the subjects they chose, financial hardship, failing courses and class sizes. The dropout rate has stayed fairly consistent for nearly a decade.
Universities Australia deputy chief executive Greg Evans said some students were unable to cope with the reality of higher education, and dropping out was a valid choice for them and part of the learning experience.
"Universities are unique places,'' Mr Evans said. ''They are neither the directed-learning environment of school nor offer the financial incentives and supervision of a workplace.
"It will be the first time for many enrolled students where they have to exercise much greater personal responsibility for their future, and starting a degree on campus or online needs a level of discipline and confidence that this is the correct path for the individual concerned.
"Not everyone finds university to be what they expected. Others find that the course they enrolled in is not what they want to do, and change direction upon arrival. These are all valid choices and part of a learning process."
Charles Sturt University dean of students Julia Coyle is less sanguine about the robustness of the new undergraduates. Up to 20 per cent of its first-year students drop out, Department of Education figures show.
The university cohort has a greater number of mature-aged students from lower socio-economic backgrounds than other institutions. Many of them are trying to complete studies through distance education programs.
Professor Coyle said the university had decided it needed a proactive approach to lift its retention rates. Teams are sent out on campus and into regional NSW to meet the students to help address their concerns.
"We have undertaken a significant amount of work in the past two to three years," she said. "Rather than calling us, we are calling them to build their resilience and persistence.''
University of Western Sydney pro-vice-chancellor Angelo Kourtis said many complex reasons were behind a student dropping out beyond those of academic preparedness, including financial stress, employment or family reasons. He said programs had to be tailored to a student's individual needs.
"The university has in place both academic and practical support programs to help students make the transition, particularly for those from lower socio-economic backgrounds or those who are the first in their families to attend university," he said.
"This includes dedicated support to help students who might have difficulty with subjects such as maths and statistics, academic literacy and academic preparation programs, as well as extensive financial assistance through the provision of emergency grants and loans, food and book vouchers, and welfare support."
A spokesman for federal Education Minister Christopher Pyne said the government would provide about $180.7 million through the Higher Education Participation and Partnerships Program to help improve access to university for people from low socio-economic status backgrounds and to improve their retention and completion rates.
'I needed to leave ... for the sake of my wellbeing'
Olivia Stock was in trouble within days of starting university.
She was attending the University of NSW college of fine arts after finishing year 12 at Barker College in Hornsby, and was following the route taken by many high school students, moving straight from school to university.
Instead of entering a new world of possibilities, she felt lost and alone. ''I became really distressed because I felt as though I'd made a huge mistake and didn't know what to do,'' the 19-year-old from Turramurra said.
''I spoke to a counsellor outside of uni who was unbiased and helped me figure out that I needed to leave uni for the sake of my wellbeing. And that a uni degree wasn't the be all and end all, and it was perfectly OK to study design somewhere else.
''I also spoke to my family and they said that because I gave uni a go, I could find somewhere else to study design. They were really supportive.''
She left her course after one semester last year and enrolled at the Billy Blue College of Design at North Sydney in October.
''Going to uni felt like a huge chore and I didn't want to be there,'' she said.
''I would say to someone who is unhappy at uni and thinking of dropping out to lay out all your options and go and speak to someone who can guide you … because every day will be a struggle.''