In Evelyn Waugh’s masterpiece Brideshead Revisited life at university in the 1920s is depicted as an idyll. The fictional narrator Charles Ryder and his friend Lord Sebastian Flyte, along with his other close chum, teddy bear Aloysius, enjoy languid golden summers replete with bubbly and strawberries at Oxford University, memorably described by the poet Matthew Arnold (himself a Balliol College graduate) as surrounded by dreaming spires. Somehow, amidst this life of polite decadence, they managed to earn a degree. Waugh’s characters were aristocrats, or close to it, and were a privileged few. Not many people went to university, but the upper-class few who did apparently managed to enjoy themselves.

Well, times have changed thankfully and today’s universities are far more democratic and representative of their societies. Young people from all kinds of backgrounds can access higher education. And if they work hard enough and are fortunate to have good support networks, they may go on to have successful and fulfilling lives. A degree remains a passport to many advantages, financial and social.

According to a report in The Australian’s Higher Education section this week by editor Julie Hare students appear to be enjoying themselves – even more so than Charles and Sebastian and their ilk ever did.

Julie writes that first-year students are happier than ever – they “like their teachers, get plenty of helpful feedback, and are less likely to drop out than any time in the past 20 years”.

“They are clear about why they go to university, have a sense of purpose when they get there and enjoy the intellectual stimulation, according to a new study of the first year experience due to be released next week.”

However, there is a downside – it appears that students with low ATARs “are not sharing the positive experience of the rest of their cohort. And only a minority of all first-year students are enjoying the ­collegial aspect of university”.

The study Julie cites is authored by Chi Baik, Ryan Naylor and Sophie Arkoudis from Melbourne University’s Centre for the Study of Higher Education.

According to the researchers, while the majority are content with their lot, those with low ATARs were less happy, less engaged, less motivated and at risk of dropping out. Dr Baik is quoted as saying that low-ATAR students are more likely to consider deferring of discontinuing.

“They say things like academic standards were higher than they expected, they find it difficult to get motivated and they don’t enjoy the intellectual challenge. This group stands out as being less prepared and less likely to adjust.”

Dr Baik said the finding was significant and held serious implications for the sector including rethinking pre-bachelor preparatory courses.

And while overall engagement with university was high, engagement with peers was at a historical low –“About 30 per cent of students report that they never ask questions in class and never make class presentations.”

HECG considers that while there is much to be optimistic about, much remains to be done to ensure that allstudents benefit from their education and university experience. This is why we constantly assert that students should come first and that those institutions who best meet the needs and expectations of students will achieve the greatest success. This, crucially, includes matching the student to the right degree, which goes a long way to managing expectations and increasing retention.

To find out how HECG can help you achieve your student-centred goals, go here.