Mind the Gap

First published in The Australian 2 March 2013

Tim Laurence blogger Tim Laurence
Dean of Studies

Suitcases are packed and iPads charged as eighteen year-olds around Australia set off for that rite of passage known as the Gap Year. Nervous parents anticipate midnight calls from a Laos hospital or a Bali beach clinic and shudder. Next door, the proud parents ordering online textbooks for their soon-to-be uni student, have no such concerns. But they should. Graduation and career success is by no means guaranteed. The growing gap between school and university means that more young people than ever will be alienated, isolated and ultimately fall at the first hurdle in tertiary education.

Schools, in line with society’s expectations, have moved to greater supervision and wide-reaching, practical support for HSC students, while universities have embraced larger intakes and minimised academic contact. A tectonic shift in a young person’s world takes place overnight - from controlled to uncontrolled, mandatory to optional, directed choice to free will, and leaves many hurtling down the fissures to failure.

Attrition rates for the first year of university are higher than ever. Much of this failure is a fait accompli before the first month of study is up. Without pressure to submit assignments, little support for individual learning and no monitoring of attendance, many new students fall behind. They often miss the signs themselves and, in a twelve-week semester, four weeks of poor performance can prove definitive. After a month, they are irrevocably enrolled and their academic record – and HECS debt - begins to accrue.

We are all complicit in this. For parents, Western culture dictates (and our teenagers often demand) that we don’t interfere once they have ‘grown up’. Universities are driven to increase participation rates to secure their financial futures and society at large promotes choice and free will as the ultimate Nirvana. A disposable income is expected and students, especially those in the expensive cities of Australia, need a job. The average class time, outside of Science and Engineering, is 10-13 hours a week. For many, this means that they spend far more time working and travelling than they spend attending class.

The seismic shock of transition from the world of school to that of higher education can, indeed, be stimulating and positive for those students blessed with skills of self-direction and time management. For a large minority, however, it is too much choice, too many priorities, too soon. The help is certainly there. Universities invest time, money and a great deal of effort in erecting safety nets along the route to graduation. For many, used to success and plaudits at school, their first stumble leads to confusion and lost confidence and they are not in the right frame of mind to navigate their way to that help.

There are websites, blogs and books galore offering advice and tips for getting the most out of your gap year overseas: how to volunteer for a worthy cause, apps to manage your money whilst travelling and where to bungy jump. For new uni students, the advice is not so clear.

We are failing to prepare students by frontloading our support to get them to university, only to abandon them on the precipice of free choice. We must learn the lessons, already embraced by many heads of Year 7 at high school, to actively manage the transition from one culture to another, very alien one, if we want to equip our young graduates to leap over the gap between school and university. And land safely on the other side, without a bungy rope.

Tim Laurence is General Manager, Education at UTS:INSEARCH and Adjunct Professor at UTS.




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