No-one ever said transition was going to be easy…But why is no one telling our students that?

It’s that time of year again where thoughts turn to preparation for welcoming our new students, particularly pertinent for me this year as my own son prepares to make the transition into Higher Education. He won’t be alone in this- approximately one third of 18 year olds apply to UCAS each year and with the increasing prevalence of foundation courses, new entry qualifications and varied programmes available, the diversity of students that we welcome to our institutions is likely to broaden. Students are encouraged to spread their wings and move away from home, with the promise of independence that many crave. However, whilst an exciting time of life, it isn’t all plain sailing and for many the process of making the transition can be particularly challenging.

As Hassel and Ridout (2018) have pointed out, students often underestimate the impact of this transition and often bring misconceptions with them regarding degree level study. Although interventions and processes have been developed to promote successful transition, these tend to be compacted into an initial week long induction week and have historically focused on the deficit model as applied to academic content. Students may not know how to write for an academic audience. They may not understand what is required of them for academic assignments. And knowing what constitutes independent study may be a minefield for those coming directly from Further Education where the level of individual support is often seen as much greater by students. No surprise then that a number of institutions offer transition workshops and information for students which focuses on closing the academic skills gap.

Whilst not rebuffing the importance of addressing these concerns, these do not seem to feature prominently in students’ own self-reported concerns. Instead, most worries are focused on the social aspects of transition- meeting new people, feeling part of the institution and avoiding loneliness (Hughes and Smail, 2014). Indeed, such worries often manifest themselves in the form of intense anxiety and with the number of students reporting mental health issues increasing exponentially (The Institute for Public Policy Research reported a 400% increase in disclosure of mental health issues from 2003 to 2015/16), it is as important to get this right as it is the academic induction. It is encouraging, for example, to see active learning being used as a means of promoting relationships between students and staff during induction and increasingly, a move to seeing transition as an on-going concern with pre-induction activities planned and events to promote inclusion occurring throughout the academic year.

With the marketisation of higher education, the pressure to retain students is paramount. The process of transition into HE is increasingly recognised as one of the most important predictors of retention- get it right at the start and the benefits for both student and tutor can be incredibly positive (Johnston, 2010).

In a forthcoming SEDA special, we hope to explore the intricacies of the transition process, not just the transition into Higher Education but also those experienced during it and in leaving. In a world where student numbers are increasing alongside the pressure to develop these individuals into work ready graduates, the special will explore current projects and practices that aim to support and nurture individuals, both staff and students at various transition points.


Hassel, S. and Ridout, N., 2018. An Investigation of First-Year Students’ and Lecturers’ Expectations of University Education. Frontiers in psychology, 8, p.2218.

Hughes, G. and Smail, O., 2015. Which aspects of university life are most and least helpful in the transition to HE? A qualitative snapshot of student perceptions. Journal of Further and Higher Education, 39(4), pp.466-480.

Johnston, B., 2010. The first year at university: Teaching students in transition. McGraw-Hill Education (UK).

Wendy Garnham is senior Lecturer in Psychology and Director of Student Experience for the Foundation Year at University of Sussex.

2 thoughts on “No-one ever said transition was going to be easy…But why is no one telling our students that?

    • Thanks Darren- this looks great. Research about transitions during HE seems to be particularly thin on the ground- looking forward to finding out more.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s