How many students want to leave their university and why?
The Academic Experience Project is a faculty-student collaborative work aimed to glean insights about the experiences of tertiary-level students. Each Friday, The Daily Star publishes an op-ed highlighting its findings. This is the sixth article of the series.
Do any of our universities, public and private, ever ask their students: Have you thought of leaving your institution for another? We would urge administrators to conduct this exercise at least once during their tenure; it would provide powerful insight into the minds of their charges who come to the institution with hopes, dreams, and aspirations. For many, unfortunately, these dreams turn into disappointment, discontent, regret, frustration, and resignation.
In our study, we did ask students about their intention to leave their university. Not knowing what the outcome would be, we were indeed surprised! Of the 358 respondents from various universities, 35% of them replied with a resounding "Yes." Roughly one out of three students thought of leaving their current university. That number reflects, partly, the educational experience of students and ought to raise eyebrows.
Let's look at a few comments that these students offered about their academic experience: One student indicated that her institution was [stereotypical] and unimaginative. "I'm tired of PowerPoint presentations. Nobody talks about new ideas or innovation."
A second student volunteered "Laughably poor standards of pedagogy. The focus of the institution is neither on its students nor on research. 'Research' produced by [some] faculty are often semi-plagiarized from students' work and are glorified literature reviews, not real articles. Authority is too absorbed [wielding power] to actually listen to and serve their most valuable [asset]: their students."
Student comments were replete with similar themes that revealed frustrations, as well as a few accusations and condemnations. If only faculty and academic administrators were listening! One gets the sense that there is very little institution building at play at the universities; mostly it is business as usual – admit students, grab their money, give them a certificate, and send them off with inspiring graduation speeches and little else. Few, if any, universities are giving serious thought to students' employability and their future.
University-level education is one of the most important and cherished stepping-stones for students who devote a considerable amount of time in deciding which academic institution to get admitted into or which subjects to study. Parents, elder siblings, relatives, and friends -- everyone tries to provide input into this decision. You'd think when a student does finally decide to seek admission into a university, s/he'd be confident of that decision.
Unfortunately, that's not the case for many students. If we dig down a little, male and female students seemed to be equally inclined to leave. Males rated their satisfaction with academic institutions at 4.48 on a 7-point scale while the females gave a rating of 4.38. Moreover, male students' satisfaction showed a high level of variation (a statistical measure) in their response patterns. Female students exhibited less variation. These findings forced us to ask whether and the extent to which the universities are doing a good job of providing education and other services.
In one sense, students are 'paying customers' of their universities. That makes it a responsibility of the universities to assess whether and how much their efforts are benefiting the students. Regardless of the academic programs, it should never be a one-way delivery process where the students are considered to be passive and voiceless recipients of education. Instead, universities should start to listen and look for creative and engaging ways of helping the students best meet their goals.
Another problem is the availability of seats in the universities. Engineering and medical subjects are the most sought-after subjects for the students of science backgrounds. Yet only a handful of them are able to secure a place through a fiercely competitive admission process. The number of seats is also limited for other preferred subjects. Thus, a significant number of students end up choosing subjects 'not' in their priority list. This affects their desire to continue studies.
Even for the students who do get admitted into their preferred university or subject, their satisfaction is not generated automatically. Several factors determine their satisfaction level, e.g. the quality of education, the faculty-student relationship, the campus environment, career orientation, etc. So, whenever there is a gap between their expectations and what they actually receive, dissatisfaction begins to set in.
It must have also become starkly evident that distant education has become a reality in the Covid era and those who can avail it will consider options offered by foreign universities using a rapidly evolving technology platform. That could mean losing a sizeable number of students to better pedagogy and contemporary learning. Loss of precious foreign exchange is another unseen consequence.
An important question to ask, therefore, is how dissatisfied must a student be to consider leaving her/his academic institution? We recognize that our universities face a lot of limitations in providing a higher level of educational experiences. But these must be fixed. The key, however, is to understand the expectation gap between the students and the university authorities. Then ways must be found to close this gap.
Research on student satisfaction with their individual universities, as well as at a macro level can provide useful insights. The university-level research will identify the specific issues faced by the students of that university. The macro-level research will reveal the common issues faced by the students across all universities.
Once there is an actual assessment of the problems that students face, the major and pressing issues can be targeted for improvement, considering resource limitations. In phases, all the problems can be gradually addressed. It may be noted that Harvard is nearly 400 years old; it still works constantly to improve its offering. Building a university is indeed a work-in-progress.
The importance of higher education for the overall development of the country cannot be overstated. When a significant percentage of the students are unhappy with their academic institutions and wish to exit, surely something is not right. Moreover, much investment has gone into the students who make it to the university level. Competent and conscious administrators and policy makers must find ways of not allowing the investment to go to waste. It is time we start listening to the students and make the needed changes to give them a positive academic experience.
Md. Umor Farooque is working on his MBA degree at IBA, University of Dhaka. Syed Saad Andaleeb is Distinguished Visiting Professor, IBA, University of Dhaka, and former Vice-Chancellor, BRAC University. For more information on The Academic Experience Project, contact Dr. Andaleeb at bdresearchA2Z@gmail.com.