Confidence trick

Morag Henderson found her time at university very hard. A single parent of two, with no supportive ex-partner on the scene, no money and mild dyslexia, who left school with few formal qualifications, she says: "I thought about dropping out all the time."

At times, the problems seemed to pile up endlessly, but despite debts mounting, a child being bullied at school, a dispute with the university about transcribing her exam papers to make them legible and struggles with aspects of the work, Henderson graduated with a 2.1 in archaeology from Edinburgh University this year.

“I really don’t know what made me finish, but I think it was sheer bloody mindedness. Whether it was worth it remains to be seen – I owe thousands of pounds and there don’t seem to be many jobs coming up.”

In contrast, 21-year-old Kevin Hazlehurst completed only one year of his degree course at Heriot Watt University in Lothian before dropping out. From the very first weeks of arriving at the campus, Hazlehurst felt everything was wrong. “I hadn’t realised that the degree I had chosen, combined studies, wasn’t as good as some of the other courses and didn’t have as much value. It didn’t have its own school so I felt a bit out on a limb. Most people seemed to have been planning what to do for ages and be really happy with their choices, but I wasn’t.” He cut his losses and returned to his native Liverpool, where he is now working for a legal services agency.

Growing problem

No one leaves school wanting to be a university drop-out, yet the number of universities where more than one in five has left after just a year is rising.

How can Britain’s universities turn their Kevins into Morags? Could a little bit of positive thinking be the answer?

One university thinks it could. Napier University in Edinburgh, which two years ago had the highest drop-out rate in Britain, is to become the first to impose compulsory confidence classes on all its 14,000 students.

The programme, called Confident Futures and aimed at developing positive thinking, resilience and coping, is being driven by Scotland’s first female university principal, Joan Stringer.

Stringer, who failed the 11-plus and left school at 15, came to academia late but is making all the more impact for that. Her aim is to endow all her graduates with “self-belief, self-knowledge, confidence and problem-solving skills. The plan is to embed this into the curriculum. It’s not a bolt-on extra.”

The programme was largely developed by Carol Craig, the nearest thing Scotland has to a guru, a formidable woman who lectures all over Scotland trying to encourage the emergence of a cheerier, sunnier, more confident country, and her colleagues at the Centre for Confidence and Well Being, in Glasgow, which she set up. For her, there are elements of truth in the caricature of the dour Scot. “I think in this country we can be a bit prone to negative thinking. Businesses tell me that if they have investment to announce, everybody says, so where are you cutting back?

“Students do have problems, they have hardships, they have to struggle for money. But some of them get through it and some of them don’t. The programme we suggested is about helping them to build resilience and confidence and coping skills. It’s about helping them not to give too much credence to that little critical voice in their heads that is saying to them, you’ll never do this.”

Techniques they use with the students include getting them to write down each night three good things that have happened that day. “It’s such a simple technique, but there is good evidence that it can increase positive thinking. It can even break up mild to moderate depression.”

The programme isn’t about making things easier for students, she concedes. “There are times when you have to say to them, ‘this is hard but plenty of other people have managed it so you can, too’.”

To that end the university is bringing in motivational speakers such as round-the-world yachtsman Sir Chay Blyth and lawyer and meningitis sufferer Olivia Giles.

The Confident Futures programme will remain a compulsory subject for the whole of all degree programmes, concentrating on helping young people to develop their “soft skills” and to think creatively about their goals and aspirations.

The university is optimistic that the £200,000 programme, which is being funded in part by private donors including Paddy Crerar, chief executive of the North British Trust Group, will lead to a downward shift in the drop-out rate. It disputes the old figure of 37%, which has since come down to 21% but now excludes people such as Donna McArthur, who dropped out of a nursing degree this summer but accepted a Higher Education Health Certificate instead. She is sceptical about the new programme.

“In my case, everyone was really sympathetic and encouraging. They said I was doing really well and they didn’t want me to leave and I would make a great nurse, but nobody could actually do anything about the problem. I was required to do unpaid 12-hour placements. I have three kids and the childcare to enable me to do it was going to cost £1,000 a month. We just don’t have that kind of money.”

Vice-principal Jenny Rees argues that despite McArthur’s example, research shows that for most students money troubles are only part of their reason for leaving.

Much of Napier’s drop-out rate is explained by its high rate of social inclusion, she says. “Social inclusiveness and a high drop-out rate go together, but what I say is that that is a reason, not an excuse. There is absolutely no reason for being complacent and we need to get our drop-out rate down. Behind every one of those statistics is a story.”

Social inclusiveness

Scotland’s school-leaver higher education participation rate peaked at just over 50%, but dropped back to 46% last year. Its higher social inclusiveness is linked to a higher drop-out rate, but as England widens its participation towards a 50% target of under-30s, its casualty rate is rising, too.

But some experts believe Napier is working out the wrong solution. Professor Peter Davies specialises in this field in the access unit at the University of Staffordshire, another socially inclusive institution, with a drop-out rate of 20%.

“We are pretty sceptical about what you can achieve by trying to raise aspiration or confidence. We assessed a big project in schools in Stoke, which was all about raising aspiration and self-efficacy, and even though the teacher and the students felt it had made a difference, we didn’t find any difference in achievement,” Professor Davies says.

“I think making university more accessible has to be about changing what’s on offer, not about changing the students. When you recruit students from non-traditional backgrounds, you have to be aware that they don’t necessarily know what is expected of them. If you tell them to go off and read a book – and some of these first-year set texts are huge tomes – they may think you are expecting them to memorise it and think, I can’t do that. They may not understand the rules of the game and how the game is played. Unfortunately, some university staff will just think, what are they doing here? But universities need to get better at engaging these new kinds of student.”

For graduate Morag Henderson, this is resonant. “In my first course, we were told to hand in a portfolio of eight reports. It was only when I got the mark that I realised I hadn’t understood what they meant by that. Some people might have felt crushed by that, but I just felt annoyed. I’m not sure where that comes from but it is a sort of confidence, I suppose.”

The Guardian
28th November 2006