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By Sarah Mackie

Senior Lecturer in Organisational Behaviour, Bristol Business School, University of the West of England, Bristol,

Paper presented at Higher Education Close Up, an international conference from 6-8 July 1998 at University of Central Lancashire, Preston. This conference is jointly hosted by the Department of Educational Research, Lancaster University and the Department of Education Studies, University of Central Lancashire and is supported by the Society for Research into Higher Education


This paper explores student withdrawal behaviour within the context of the first year of a large (some 450 students), undergraduate modular programme in the Business School of a new university, in the academic year 1996/97.

"A new year, a new job, ... a course of study eagerly we turn to each new event with expectant hope. Untried, unsullied, it holds the promise of meeting some need as yet unmet, the fulfilment of desires as yet unfulfilled, the ideal we have never given up searching for... But, however hopeful our anticipation, we also harbour fears about the future. 'Every beginning is hard' says the wise German proverb, pointing to the uncertainty and doubts which tend to beset us ... It is of the nature of beginning that the path ahead is unknown, leaving us poised as we enter upon it between wondrous excitement and anxious dread"

SalzbergerWittenberg et al, 1983:3

The purpose of the research was to understand why the 'expectant hope' of some students turns into a need met and the fulfilment of a desire, while for others, the 'expectant hope' turns to fears realized, uncertainty and doubt and eventual departure from university.

This paper explores the reasons why some students voluntarily abandon the university experience, while others, who share the same experience and may face similar difficulties, remain. The project generated qualitative data to promote an understanding within the Business School of the way in which students experience the modular programme and the problems that they might face in seeking to adapt to, and cope within, its constraints and demands. Whilst also coping with considerable personal upheaval, for most living away from home for the first time.

Much previous research in this area has sought to understand the distinct personality profile of leavers or the specific event that leads to their departure. However the purpose of this research was not simply to identify students who may be at risk of leaving and to devise strategies to retain these students at all cost, as it can be in the interest of the student to leave. This project sought to comprehend the complex interplay of forces personal and institutional and external which lead up to the decision by the student to leave.


An extensive review of the available literature (for further details, see Mackie, 1997) was undertaken as part of this project, looking at:

2.1 Approaches to the study of change and transition, and the role that social support and a sense of belonging have to play in the process of coping with change.

It is the basis of this research that the experience of going to university is about significant personal change and is a period of upheaval and transition (Weiss, 1990) and can be experienced as stressful (Earwalker,1992; Vernberg & Field, 1992; Szulecka et al., 1984). It is a psychosocial experience which involves change to the individual's sense of self (SalzbergerWittenberg, 1983) and occurs at a stage in the young adult's life when role identity is important and the need for interactions with others is heightened (Erikson, 1950). Some individuals are more susceptible to the effects of transition than others and may react with homesickness, experienced as a lack of control over the new environment (Fisher, 1989, 1985, 1984; Fisher & Hood, 1987).

It is the assumption that social support is important in the experience of transition as it is emotionally sustaining (Weiss, 1990; Maslow, 1954), facilitates the transition to a new role (Earwalker, 1992), may alleviate homesickness (Fisher, 1989) and may buffer against the negative effects of stressful events (Berndt, 1989; Sandler et al, 1989; Cohen & Wills, 1985; Cobb, 1976)

2.2 University noncompletion literature

The reviewed literature provides no firm conclusions about the specific individual factors, which influence the decision to abandon the university experience. Those factors that are discussed as significant are:

This points to the complexity of the factors that influence the decision to leave and to the additional interactions with institutional and external factors. There is therefore a need to understand the process of departure.

Drawing on the models of student persistence of Tinto (1975, 1987) and Johnson (1994) the research recognizes that the factors affecting withdrawal decisions are more complex than individual characteristics or certain pre-requisites for university success.

Johnson (1994) and Martinez (1995) have been of particular interest in that they suggest that there are significant differences between the ways in which students who stay and students who leave experience university. These cannot be accounted for by either individual differences or levels of campus integration.

Throughout their first year some students will leave due to unavoidable events illness, family problems or financial hardship. Yet some will waver in their commitment to their studies and will consider giving up and leaving for reasons which are entirely to do with their perceptions of events, with how they think and feel about their experience of university.

At this point some decide to go while others stay. Leavers may be no less academically able, equally up to date with their work, attending well, but for some reason that is not at present understood, they feel that cannot continue. This is evidence of some sort of failure in adjustment to university life, that in some way they have not felt supported and secure, and do not have the necessary motivation and psychological strength to continue.

It is the assumption of this research that to understand the question of the difference between leavers and stayers will offer significant insights into the process of student departure. 3. THE RESEARCH AIM

The aim of the research was to understand the nature of the student experience and the process of departure from university through a comparative study of the experience of leavers, and of those students who may have had similar difficulties and doubts but choose to remain.


4.1 Research approach

The overall orientation of the investigation is qualitative for problem exploration, with the emphasis on seeking to understand the factors influencing the process of voluntary student departure and to raise awareness of the issues involved.

Informed by the relevant research literature and background data, the research follows an iterative process of gathering data, analysis and exploration, followed by further stages of re-analysis and exploration in the light of emerging themes, resulting in the development of a model of the first year experience.

The research uses a qualitative methodology to explore how students understand and perceive their experience of university life, its problems and the process of departure. The research is conducted from within a humanistic tradition and is concerned with creating understanding from within the students' own frame of reference. The researcher focuses on meanings in an attempt to understand what is happening to the students who have doubts or who choose to leave. The data collection strategy therefore attempts to understand how the world is experienced by the participants, to look at the perspective of students in the process of doubt or departure, and to then describe it.

4.2 Stage One - background research

Background research was conducted to familiarize the researcher with the issues, concerns and views of current first year students and to attempt to see the university experience through their eyes, without the blinkers of the researcher's own experience. It is also important to understand the issues for all students before the experience of leavers can be understood.

Background research with students consisted of a questionnaire at the post induction stage and two focus groups at the end of term one.

4.3 Stage Two in depth data

Two groups of students, those had doubts about staying, termed doubters, and those who have voluntarily withdrawn from university in that academic year, termed leavers, were contacted and interviewed on a one to one basis, in person or by telephone, at the beginning of term two.

The purpose of these interviews was to:

Interviews were broadly unstructured but aimed to cover the broad themes to have emerged from the background data gathered in Stage One and by the conceptual framework previously developed. Interviews lasted thirty minutes to one hour and were audio taped and transcribed in full.

'Doubters' were self selected in the sense that they responded to an email asking for students who have experienced doubts about staying to volunteer to come forward for one to one interviews to explore the reasons behind their doubts, and their reasons for staying despite these.

'Leavers' were contacted by telephone and interviewed over the phone.

4.4 Data Analysis Methodology

The principal tool for analysis for this research was the Force Field Analysis model, based on the work of Lewin (1951. Categories for the forces for the model were suggested by the background data generated in Stage One. The resulting model was then used in the analysis of the data generated in Stage Two.

Force Field Analysis

The university experience is viewed as a change from the student's current state as a non-student to a future state as a student fully integrated into all aspects of university life. The Force Field Analysis model explores the forces that facilitate or inhibit any change or movement towards this future. For this change to happen there must be an increase in the strength of the driving forces or a reduction in the strength of the restraining forces, or they must be removed.

figure: force field analysis

Enabling forces push towards the fulfilment of the goal and constraining forces resist or impede movement towards the goal. It is the assumption of the model that if the driving forces are stronger then there is movement towards the goal and if the restraining forces are stronger then the situation regresses. Where there is a lack of progress towards the goal it is because the restraining forces are too strong or because the driving forces are too weak.

For the purpose of this analysis the movement towards a goal is viewed as staying at university and the situation regressing is viewed as leaving university.

Forces will either :

Therefore for each student there are forces which push the student towards staying at university and there are forces which pull the student away from staying. If the student leaves it is because the pulling away forces are too strong or because the pushing to stay forces are too weak.

The model focuses on the identification and systematic analysis of the forces that facilitate or inhibit change within this university and the environment of student life, and thereby creates an understanding of the dynamics of change.

Categories for the nature of the enablers and the constraints were suggested by the background data in Stage One. An individual category of enablers and constraints is also added from Lewin's (1951) assertion that the motivation of the individual involved in the change must be taken into account, and from Tinto's 1975 model where early goal commitment is part of the process.

For each student interviewed in Stage Two a Force Field Analysis is generated. The relative strengths and weaknesses of each of the categories of the enablers and the constraints will be assessed as strong, medium, or weak and assigned a numerical value 3, 2 or 1. This in turn allows the construction of a pictorial representation, which summarizes the situation for each student.

The summary of the data generated by the Force Field Analyses is further analysed and used to create a model which seeks to explain the nature of student experience in relation to the reasons why they stay at, or leave, university.


5.1 The Force Field Analysis model:

figure: force field analysis model

The motivation, commitment, feelings and attitudes of the individual involved in the change.

Movement towards the goal of full integration into all aspects of university life, is realized through the combined actions of four forces social, organizational., external and individual. For each of these forces there are enablers and constraints. The internal dynamics of each force results in a move towards, or away from four subgoals, representing the principal elements of university life as indicated by the background data : social integration, organizational integration, integration into the external environment, plus the commitment of the individual involved in the change. The overall degree of integration achieved by each student will therefore be described by the dynamic relationship between the four forces and their respective strengths.


In total sixteen students were interviewed :

The Force Field Analysis model was used in the analysis of the data generated by the interviews. The interviews were sorted and categorized under the four headings social, organizational, external and individual. Data under each one of the headings was then classified as moving the student towards integration in that category and named 'enabler' or as moving the student away from integration in that category and named 'constraint'. The data in each one of the resultant categories has been judged as strong, medium and weak, and assigned the numerical value, 3, 2 and 1 respectively. The degree of integration is reflected in the sum of the value of the enablers and of the value of the constraints. A negative total reflects a lack of integration, a positive total reflects a movement towards integration.

The process of categorizing and evaluating the strength of the force for change in each of the categories was repeated, independently, on three occasions. Albeit each time by the researcher herself.

The results of these analyses enabled the researcher to understand:

6.1 The Four Forces

6.1.1 Social enablers and constraints

figure: Social enablers and constraints

Results show:

For leavers the combined forces of social enablers is slightly less than the combined forces of social constraints. For doubters the combined forces of social constraints is more powerful than social enablers. A lack of social integration is a source of dissatisfaction for students who have doubts and an issue for students who have left, but not specifically a reason for leaving.

It is a powerful force, which features strongly in the discussions of the students' experience of university life:

Social enablers

There is a strong need to form close friendships and to find support from fellow students. Most report supportive relationships seen in having people to rely on, to rust and confide in, but these are likely to be limited to a few people, most often housemates rather than students on their course, where few students report close friendships. Close friendships can be a source of the motivation to continue. Mature students need to find sources of support within the course as family commitments make relationships outside the course difficult.

Social enablers are seen in the ease of making friends, knowing many people, fully participating in university social life, joining clubs and societies.

Social constraints :

While having made new friends at university they can doubt the value of these friends comparing them unfavourably to some past ideal family or friends at home, or to a group of friends who are at university elsewhere. There is an attachment to the past and an inability to move towards full social integration. They report difficulties in making friends, and find it difficult to widen their network of friends beyond contacts made in the first weeks at university. There is limited participation in university social life. They may experience feelings of homesickness and go home often. This increases social isolation as others then cease to include them in social activities.

They may feel isolated and have no close friends to confide in and feel little in common with fellow students and not liking student activities, e.g. the emphasis on social consumption of alcohol.

The analysis of the social force reveals that :

The principal source of friendships and supportive relationships come from the students that they share accommodation with, few report that students on their course become close friends, in the sense that they socialize with them outside time spent at the university and would confide in them or turn to them for help and support. Student who do not have this friendship base within their accommodation, feel at a disadvantage. They do not perceive other students as wanting to offer them close friendships. Social integration takes place in the university social life outside the context of time spent physically in the university. In this sense students do not feel part of the Business School or of a course with a specific identity.

6.1.2 Organizational enablers and constraints

figure: Organizational enablers and constraints

Results show:

For both groups of students there is more movement away from integration within the formal organization than there is movement towards integration within the formal organization. It is therefore more important as a constraint than as an enabler for both groups.

At this stage in their university careers few students have started to feel fully integrated within the formal organization. Students who have had doubts are likely to have expressed concerns about coping with formal aspects of the organization. Not all students who leave have had problems in this area, although most had. Organizational factors are a factor in the decision to leave for leavers and a cause of dissatisfaction for doubters.

It is a powerful force, which features strongly in students' discussion of their experience of university life. It is however discussed more negatively than positively.

Organizational enablers

Students appear confident that they are doing well and they enjoy course content and style. Feedback confirms their ability to cope and that they have made the correct choice. The organization meets and responds to their needs. They find staff supportive and the system of pastoral care effective.

Organizational constraints

They find the tone of induction impersonal, negative and frightening or felt that it did not meet with their needs. Subsequent experiences confirm their initial impressions.

The style of the course is experienced as difficult. Student centred approaches are equated with being left to cope alone. Teaching groups are too big, tutors do not know who they are, or a specific aspect of the course poses problems

They find it difficult to cope with the quantity and quality of work expected of them.

They may actively dislike course content or feel that the course has not met with their expectations. A lack of feedback means they are confused about their progress

They have not found the organization to be sympathetic to their needs or to their problems. The system of pastoral care is not perceived as effective. Timetabling is seen as an obstacle that can not be resolved. There have been administrative difficulties, in particular with the accommodation, and the university is not seen as helpful in resolving these.

The analysis of the organizational force reveals that:

At the point in time when the interviews were conducted beginning of the second term students are still very uncertain about aspects of the formal organization. Written work has been submitted in each of their subjects but most students had not yet received any feedback. They are therefore working 'blind' they do net yet understand whether they are doing what is expected of them in terms of quality of work. Significantly this uncertainty reveals that the formal organization has not communicated its expectations or equipped the students with the knowledge / skills to cope, in particular with the transition from school. The uncertainty is expressed in anxieties and criticisms of tangibles e.g. timetabling, accommodation, as these fears can be more readily expressed.

It is also significant that the organization is often seen as impersonal, intimidating and not approachable despite an established system of pastoral care. The role of support from other sources friends is therefore accentuated.

6.1.3 External enablers and constraints

figure: External enablers and constraints

Results show:

For all students it is stronger as a constraint than as an enabler. It is the least important of the four forces discussed and does not feature as strongly in their discussions. For both doubters and leavers the combined forces of constraints move the student away from integrating within the external environment of university life, as the external enablers are weaker.

The impact of this force is very varied. When it arises it acts powerfully to become the reason for leaving and can counteract the combined actions of the other forces.

External enablers

A previous experience of independence eases adaptation to university life and confidence in their ability to cope with practical aspects.

Finances act as an enabler when the student does not want to waste money already spent to date, or because limited finances mean staying at home to study was the only option.

Appropriate accommodation : e.g. living in university halls, in student areas and with suitable housemates, acts as an enabler.

External constraints

Accommodation acts most powerfully as an external constraint : high cost, inappropriate location, unacceptable standard, unsuitable location and housemates, living in the parental home. Problems in securing accommodation late in the summer and changing accommodation can be a critical factor.

Financial issues act negatively doubts about affording the ongoing and future costs, not wanting to get into debt, or to 'waste' any more money as this will limit the ability to start again elsewhere.

A relationship outside the university / family responsibilities may limit integration, as does a specific problem e.g. health, travel, other work.

The analysis of the external force reveals that:

Accommodation is a major source of dissatisfaction. University managed accommodation gives first year students limited choice of location or housemates. Most will live houses in a specific area of the city with six or so others. Late arrivals will find themselves sharing houses with nonstudents in other areas. There is therefore considerable potential for disharmony with housemates and the identification of perceived more desirable places to live. However most students cannot easily change their accommodation as rental contracts commit them to a one year tenancy.

Financial issues do not simply act as a constraint in the sense of not having sufficient funds to continue. Students increasingly spend their own money to pay for university. They do not want to continue with an experience which is not fulfilling their needs and which might result in failure and which therefore 'wastes' their own money. Furthermore funds spent on a full year at UWE may limit the opportunity to start again on another course better suited to their needs.

6.1.4 Individual enablers and constraints

figure: Individual enablers and constraints

Results show that:

Here there is a marked difference between leavers and doubters. For leavers the combined action of the constraints are stronger than the combined action of the enablers, there is a decrease in individual commitment. For doubters the combined action of the enablers is stronger than the combined action of the constraints, they remain committed to the university experience, despite any lack of integration within any of the other forces.

Therefore this suggests that for leavers individual factors play a critical role in their decision to leave and for doubters in their decision to stay.

Individual enablers

Personal commitment is enhanced by the degree of initial commitment to attend university. Students have positive, realistic expectations of university and a long-term goal.

They want to take full advantage of the opportunity that a university education presents to them. If they leave, they experience feelings of disappointment and will start another course of study elsewhere. Outside influences may have been instrumental in their decision to attend: school, parents.

Feelings of control act in one of two opposing ways:

They are highly motivated and determined to continue despite any difficulties.

Individual constraints

Poor initial commitment is reflected by a late decision to attend e.g. an application made through the summer clearing process. Doubts may have surfaced early on about leaving home or the choice of course. If they leave they experience feelings of relief and may not start again elsewhere..

They experience feelings of homesickness, they miss family and former friends and need their support. Homesickness increases over time. They experience a lack of control over events and experience feelings of helplessness. They lack confidence and may experience feelings of alienation, of not feeling that they belong.

They become increasingly demotivated as a lack on integration in the other forces occur. Reservations and doubts are openly expressed. They are actively considering an alternative to staying.

Parental influence acts in two ways :

Younger students feel that it is not as critical to stay as they are young enough to start again elsewhere.

The analysis of the individual force reveals that:

Issues of a sense of control over the decision to come to university would appear to be central. If not fully in control of that decision for any reason outside pressure from school or parents, or because a decision was made late or quickly, then doubts about the university experience will rapidly surface, there is a perception that difficulties cannot be overcome and departure results. Interestingly this lack of control also results in staying as they may feel powerless to make the decision to leave.

Homesickness is a feature of both groups but more marked among leavers and reflects a tie to the past, an inability to let go of past attachments and to move forward. The student experience is not for all students, some feel that they are not able to identify and integrate within student culture and will not seek to reenter HE elsewhere.

6.2 Difference between doubters and leavers.

The sum of the aggregate scores from section 6.1.1 to 6.1.4 gives the following overall picture for leavers and doubters:

figure: Degree of integration

A student who has doubts has had problems with:

  1. organizational integration
  2. external integration
  3. social integration

However, commitment to stay has been maintained or increased.

A student who leaves has had problems with:

  1. external integration
  2. organizational integration
  3. social integration

However, commitment to stay has decreased.

The most marked difference between leavers and doubters is within the individual force. It is not the problems that they face but their perception of events and their motivation to cope. i.e. it is not the problems per sae but their reactions to them. There are very few problems that leavers face which make it impossible for them to stay, or are significantly worse than the problems that doubters face, but it is the perception of leavers that problems can not be resolved. They lack any sense of control over their own lives that would enable them to cope with their problems. The question is whether they are powerless to cope with their problems from the start of whether their problems, notably homesickness, have made them experience feelings of powerlessness.


The results confirm that it is not possible to isolate one precise reason why students leave. All students face problems in seeking to adapt to the demands of university life, but it is the complex interplay of a number of variables, the principal one of these which is the degree of individual commitment, which lead up to the decision to leave or to stay.

A model of the process (see Figure 1, page 18) will seek to predict how individuals make this decision by identifying the major hurdles that a student will have to overcome during their first year at university. The interaction of a number of forces impacts on the decision-making process.

The model of the first year experience on the following page illustrates how initial commitment, and a long term objective and continued motivation, are the driving forces which respectively push and pull the student over the two major hurdles that they will face during their first year. Firstly, integrating within the social organization of the university and secondly, integrating within the formal organization. The 'height' of the hurdles is not the important factor. What is important is the willingness of the student to 'jump', initial commitment pushes them up the side of the hurdle and a long-term objective and sustained motivation pulls them over the top.

Feedback to the individual of the degree of successful social and organizational integration increases, or decreases, their long-term commitment to stay. Progress is further aided or impeded by external factors.

Departure results from a failure in one of four arenas: social integration, organizational integration, insuperable external problems or a failure in individual commitment. Either levels of commitment are sufficiently strong enough to overcome problems, or feedback is negative and commitment decreases. Failure in the process will occur at any point in time during the year. Departure early in the year in most likely to result from a failure in social integration, student accommodation as the primary source of friends and supportive relationships will play an important role in this process. Departure later in the year in most likely to result from a failure in organizational integration and be concerned with course content and style. University staff and systems of pastoral care play an important role in easing the student through the process.

figure: The first year experience

Figure 1. .


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This document was added to the Education-line database 29 June 1998