Why do so many young people chase their uni dream then squander it?

Why do so many young people chase their uni dream then squander it?

I enjoyed reading about the release of Year 12 results this week. Kudos to students (and the parents supporting them) who took their studies seriously, worked hard and got the result they deserved. You rock.

It's inspiring watching students chase their university dream. Then depressing watching too many students squander the opportunity when they get to uni, by skipping lectures and tutorials and ignoring university life.

What causes some students to go from dedicated, motivated learners at school to university slackers?

What causes some students to go from dedicated, motivated learners at school to university slackers?Credit:SMH

What causes some students to go from dedicated, motivated learners at school to university slackers who waste tens of thousands of dollars on a degree and whinge when there is no job at the end?

Of course, not all students are like this. Some work harder at university than they did at school, attending every lecture and immersing themselves in campus life. They come to campus each day, join student associations, make new friends and live uni life to the full.


Sadly, I see too many youngsters do the opposite these days. They skip lectures and tutorials and only attend campus when they must. They prefer to "learn" online and do not see university as a life-changing experience that is about more than textbooks and classrooms.

Their journey of discovery extends from the couch to the X-Box machine.

I know what you're thinking: this is another millennial-bashing column built on observation rather than fact. The truth is, we do not know enough about student engagement at uni, its linkages with learning and employment outcomes, and factors influencing engagement.

Student engagement is not the same as student satisfaction. Some universities promote high student satisfaction ratings, even though it's not always clear what the findings are based on. As an aside, why do weaker unis often have higher student satisfaction ratings (do they have less-demanding students who are easier to please?).

My view of student engagement relates to how many voluntary lectures and tutorials they attend and how engaged they are on campus. Do they attend uni most days? Have they joined student associations? Do they use university resources and attend events? Do they play sport on campus, use the gym, watch bands and participate in uni competitions?

I want to know how immersed students are in the full university experience, how that compares across universities and whether the trend is rising or falling. We'll never know, of course, given the difficulty of collecting this data across the sector and the risks of what it might show.

So, allow me to indulge in an anecdote. As a sessional university lecturer for many years, I was dismayed at falling student attendance. In my course of more than 200 students at different times, it was common for fewer than 30 to attend lectures by semester's end.

Those who attended said they loved the lectures on entrepreneurship. Some even invited friends from other courses to attend. I made tutorial attendance compulsory because few students would have shown up otherwise.

When I asked students why they skipped lectures, it was a familiar story: taped lectures were easier to watch online (even though few did); lectures clashed with part-time work or sporting functions; or they were just too busy. Uni was one of several priorities.

Moreover, the university's campus was dull. No loud music, protests, risk-taking or vibrant atmosphere. No feeling that this was the future. If students were immersed in campus life, I couldn't see it.

Yes, it's pointless relating current campus life to that 30 years ago when university was free, there were fewer international students and entry standards were higher. Sadly, it's a different world for students, teachers and universities in this degree-factory era.

Still, I suspect other factors are at play in student engagement and that we need to know more about them. It's a no-brainer that engaged students should have better learning, employment and life outcomes from their university experience.

Some reasons for lower student engagement are common across generations: less parental monitoring when students attend university; less learning discipline; and students rejoicing in new-found freedom outside school.

Other reasons are newer. The move to offer lectures online is part of the problem. The flexibility of blended learning is a poor substitute for students learning from their teacher and each other in a classroom. Universities have made it too easy for some students to avoid campus.

Students, too, have different pressures. Many want to travel earlier in life, have a good phone, a gym membership and eat out. That means more expenses and university studies squeezed between part-time work. From many, a degree is not their sole focus.

Universities, too, have different pressures. Larger classroom sizes, more sessional (part-time) teachers, and many international students at some universities have changed the experience for local students. Why bother showing up for lectures that are poorly taught, boring or if other students add little to the discussion.

Public transport is another issue. As cities become more congested, it's taking longer to get to and from inner-city universities. Parking is scarce and expensive, and buses, trams and trains are crowded. It's too easy to stay at home and watch a lecture online than attend campus.

Perhaps outdated teaching methods in some courses is the main reason for lower student engagement. I see passionate school teachers encouraging students to explore for information and working hard to make learning fun and stimulating. Then overworked, under-appreciated university lecturers who thrust information at young students and provide little feedback.

Is it any wonder fewer students attend boring two-hour lectures when the presenter pushes information at them, much like lecturers have done for the past 100 years? Or if softer marking standards make it easier to pass some courses without attending lectures.

I don't know the answer to these challenges. I do know that it's a shame when bright, motivated school students lose their drive for learning at university – and that student engagement at university is a topic worthy of further debate and investigation.

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Tony Featherstone writes on Personal Finance specialising in Superannuation & SMSFs, Specialist Investments.

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