Transition to university crucial for students from low decile schools

Media Release
Issued 25 March 2010

Surviving the transition from school to university can have a big impact on whether Māori and Pacific students succeed at tertiary level, a new report says.

The Starpath Project at The University of Auckland has completed a study into the stumbling blocks that cause so many able students from low-decile schools to struggle once they reach university.

“The transition from school to university is a complex process which starts well before a student sets foot on campus,” says Dr Elizabeth McKinley, Starpath Director. “Students from disadvantaged groups have a particular need for information about how university works and the expectations of them in their first year of study.”

“Academic engagement is not automatic, and when students struggle to become engaged, their transition to university and their likelihood of success is seriously compromised.”

Previous Starpath research shows Māori and Pacific students, who are clustered in low-decile schools, are less likely than other ethnic groups in New Zealand to begin degree-level studies, succeed in their first year, and continue with their studies. Many are the first in their family to attend university.

This new study found:

  • Students must start to plan early, carefully selecting NCEA subjects at secondary school with clear links to their chosen field of university study.
  • Students need practice at external examination conditions and to appreciate their importance at tertiary level. Students who had UE, but limited experience and success in sitting external examinations, experienced more difficulties.
  • The summer months were more likely to be a time of self-doubt, loss of focus and weakening of resolve for students who did not have clear goals about university. Pacific students in particular were at risk of reacting to peer pressure to drop out.
  • High family expectations were helpful when combined with informed advice and encouragement. If students did not share their parent’s aspirations, they were less likely to succeed at university.

The study found the elements that helped students to do well were a secure and supportive family environment; role models with university experience; personal determination to overcome challenges; support for students to apply for scholarships; having the ability to plan early; and having adequate information to plan well.

The study followed the transition of 44 students from two urban and six rural low to mid-decile schools. About two thirds were Māori and Pacific. The study’s authors followed the students from the last term of high school, over summer, to the end of their first semester of tertiary study. The students were interviewed, and kept journals of their transition experience. Of the 44 students in the study, 37 went on to tertiary study, and 29 completed their first semester.

Dr McKinley says parents, schools and universities each have a crucial role in the academic and social preparation of students for tertiary study.

“Parents can help their children by encouraging them to set academic goals, develop regular study habits, and appreciate a link between their effort and academic outcomes. Schools need to be fully informed of university entrance requirements, particularly for limited entry programmes, and provide accurate advice and guidance to their students. These students benefit from the proactive approach taken by universities to ensure their most at-risk students understand the enrolment process and have access to personalised support.”

The University of Auckland has several initiatives to assist Māori and Pacific with the transition to university, including the Tuākana programme, a learning community that provides peer mentoring, tutoring, and a contact network to help Māori and Pacific students achieve academically and thrive in the university environment. This year the University also published a free guide to help first year students settle into university study, with practical information, tips for success, and guidelines on what is expected of students. It also outlines how lectures, assignments and exams work at university, and what support services are available to students.

Read the full-length study: Stumbling blocks or stepping stones? Students’ experience of transition from low-mid decile schools to university.

See media coverage