Conseil supérieur de l'éducation
 
CONDITIONS FOR STUDENT SUCCESS AT THE UNIVERSITY LEVEL


Summary


With this brief on the conditions for student success at the university level, the Council completes its reflection on this theme, which it has already addressed for each of the other educational levels over the past decade. The theme remains a matter of deep concern to the education community and the state. Concerning university education, the Québec Policy on Universities: Priorities for the Future reaffirms the importance of continuing efforts in this direction. In every university, the measures taken to enhance student success demonstrate that it is, indeed, a priority.

This brief proposes a new conceptual framework for understanding the issues that underlie success, for orienting action and for guiding reflection on this theme. The brief’s contribution lies in its multidimensional analysis of the idea of success, which shows that students experience success every time they overcome an obstacle or cross one of the critical thresholds that inevitably encumber their academic path from the moment they enter university until the time they embark on a post-university career.

This brief, which culminates in a set of recommendations addressed mainly to the Minister of Education and the university sector:

  • uses a number of studies to identify the conditions associated with student success at the university level;
  • explores the meaning of success for students, by comparing changes in the way successive generations have perceived the notion;
  • and finally, paints a portrait of current conditions in the universities, identifying the obstacles and critical thresholds to success, and offering a number of examples of support measures that have been implemented.

Prior to analyzing these sub-themes, the brief identifies new elements of the context that influence success and provides a careful analysis of the issues raised, presenting the various opposing points of view and suggesting some possible solutions.

Context

The following contextual aspects call for a redefinition of the very idea of university success:

  • the rapid advancement of knowledge in the era of the new information and communication technologies and the global economy calls for a reconsideration of the university’s mission, for education is now to the advantage not only of the student, but of society at large;
  • the multiplication of partnerships between the universities and the outside world leads to the recognition that it is not only the universities that contribute to student success;
  • labour market fluctuations mean that not all graduates will have the same level of social and professional prospects when they leave university;
  • social changes are undermining the linear path young people used to follow to adult life, militating against an exclusive commitment to study and slowing the pace of studies;
  • the expected contribution of the university to solving human and social problems creates new criteria for success, which require that the development of high-level skills be linked to the betterment of the human condition;
  • the prospect of lifelong education calls for a more inclusive idea of success with a focus broader than the first university degree – the boundaries of success have become lifelong horizons;
  • the major decline in university financial resources over recent years has affected the organization of studies and the program offerings, thus modifying the conditions for success.

The Issues

In this new context, the question of student success raises a number of issues that the Council is attempting to resolve:

  • the meaning of success, which is ambiguous if defined in terms of the expected results of a university education, is clearer if it is defined in relation to the student’s own educational plans;
  • the significance and consequences of dropping out of university should be taken very seriously and students should be strongly encouraged to continue their education;
  • every Québec university should be urged to participate in the democratization of university education;
  • all the steps in the process of success should be considered and there should be less emphasis on the obtention of a diploma and successful entry into the job market in evaluating success;
  • social changes affecting young people alter the conditions for success and call for a more qualified judgement of what is meant by success;
  • the pressures inherent in education,which affect everyday student life, underline the need for various measures to support successful studies;
  • social inequalities at the university call for concrete action within the institutions.

Conditions for Success

The synthesis of studies on the factors affecting student success at the university level highlights different conditions for success, which we have grouped according to their analytical standpoints.

At the macro-social level:

  • international support for the democratization of education, including higher education, inspired the development of conditions favouring broad access to university education in Québec, which persist today;
  • job prospects influence student choices, strategies, behaviour and attitudes with regard to education;
  • it will be recalled that women only obtained access to university education in relatively recent times and that the improvements in their status remain fragile.

At the micro-social level, in addition to the factors that usually affect success, there are also some new factors):

  • social background affects success, since socialization influences personal ambitions, which generate career plans, which in turn affect perseverance in education;
  • gender brings out persistent disparities with regard to success: men and women face different obstacles or critical thresholds.
  • students’ age, which reflects the ongoing nature and pace of their studies, can be linked to educational perseverance because the latter is generally the result of a firm commitment, whether at university level or at earlier stages in the student’s curriculum;
  • students’ financial position can influence the continuation of their education;
  • the information and communication technologies, seen as a condition for access to knowledge, may constitute a new financial barrier to university studies.

At the psycho-educational level:

  • the universities’ financial resources set the perimeters of success by their direct impact on the professor-student ratio and the infrastructures of educational support and supervision;
  • the quality of students’ integration into the university is a primordial factor in determining whether students will continue their studies or drop out;
  • the program of study, including subject matter, teaching methods, workload, evaluation and supervision, is also a factor of success;
  • the relationship between professor and student stands out as a factor affecting success;
  • prior education, the appropriateness of students’ academic and professional choices and their part-time or full-time status are all characteristics that affect students’ eventual success.

Psychological conditions:

  • students’ commitment to their education and the way in which this translates in practice have considerable impact on their success;
  • motivated students are able to make the efforts required to learn and to persevere in their studies.

A New Attitude Towards Education

The Council’s research and consultation suggest that students have a new attitude towards their education:

  • their interest in a discipline and in intellectual work, their career goals and the influence of a significant person, such as a parent, are important factors in motivating them to undertake university studies;
  • their concept of success is generally located somewhere between their own personal criteria of success and institutional criteria based on university requirements. The further they go in their university education, the more this conception becomes subjective and the emphasis is laid on their personal criteria;
  • their degree of satisfaction with their education is generally high and tends to increase with each level of study. However, the level of satisfaction is very different according to the program, their knowledge of the program and their initial expectations with regard to the program;
  • various factors tend to reinforce their commitment to their studies, including the amount of time they require, the fact of having a job related to their field of studies, sufficient financing, advantageous career prospects, the strength of their attachment to a specific social group and, in the case of older adults, the equitable sharing of household tasks and employer support with regard to the educational project;
  • students’ relationship with their professor is also important, and tends to vary according to the professor’s availability, quality of supervision, personal contact and concern for the students’ overall development, explicit feedback on their work, encouragement of their motivation, intellectual open-mindedness and support for students’ career plans;
  • different objective career prospects elicit different types of commitment to education: positive prospects encourage a commitment with a strong orientation to the job market, whereas poor employment prospects encourage students to focus on the studies themselves;
  • academic aspirations and professional requirements create tensions that are dealt with differently by men and women, but usually in conformity with social gender stereotypes.

Support for Success

The universities employ a wide range of measures intended to promote their students’ success. However, these measures do not effectively address the obstacles and problems students face.

  • As regards admission to university, there are a number of obstacles, such as the low general level of education in certain regions of Québec, the social inequalities that continue to characterize the student population, different admission policies according to universities, academic and professional guidance problems, the incoherence between government financing policies for education, social politics and institutional financing policies, the significant drop in the number of part-time students, low enrolments in areas with a strong demand for labour, etc. The measures that have been identified involve information and guidance, financial support, the stimulation of interest in scientific careers, affirmative action programs, the integration of people with handicaps, etc.
  • During university studies, the obstacles or problems concern integration into university life, the changes facing young students who have to learn how to handle adult responsibilities, differences in the level of preparation of students entering university or graduate school, inconsistent attendence requirements, the difficulty of the learning objectives, a somewhat elitist idea of evaluation, the uneven quality of the education offered, and various other factors. At this stage, measures promoting successful integration into university life, supervision and support aimed at enabling students to persevere in their studies do seem to be generally established. Other elements that promote perseverance in studies include pedagogical training for professors, fine-tuning the students’ general skills, support provided for target groups among students, support in managing work and study and help with program changes.
  • Regarding graduation, the proportion of graduates from certain fields of study is lower than that from others. This is also true for part-time students. Finally, women still have certain problems in persevering at the doctoral level. The steps to promote success mentioned above are also designed to increase the rate of graduation.
Regarding integration into the job market, it was observed that the educational attainments of women do not necessarily translate into advantageous jobs, that in certain disciplines the pull of the labour market may encourage students to try to complete their education too rapidly or else to abandon their studies before obtaining a diploma, and that the examinations required by professional corporations may be a critical threshold. To remedy such situations, there are a number of ways of promoting a closer link between education and the labour market, including the publication of information on trends in various professions and the job market conditions, and tips for passing the examinations set by professional corporations.

Recommendations

On the basis of the above analysis, the Council proposes a set of recommendations aimed essentially at:

  • considering every aspect of success as of the moment when the student adopts an educational project, by developing measures that will support success and that take into account the obstacles and thresholds that are met on the way;
  • improving, overall, the level of education of the Québec population and more particularly in the outlying regions;
  • maintaining high requirements with regard to learning objectives, while better supporting students’ commitment to their education by encouraging full-time studies for young adults, by drawing up a social contract with employers to this end, by improving the financing of studies and by offering special help to those who have specific difficulties;
  • making it possible to carry out research on this subject in order to shed more light on areas that are not clear or that remain to be explored;
  • introducing into the standard program review an integrated diagnosis-intervention-evaluation process for measures to enhance student success in order to adapt the support offered to students’ needs;
  • improving the educational component, particularly the pedagogical approach, as well as program development and evaluation of the learning process.

Although convinced that this brief contributes to an understanding of student success in university, the Council recommends that certain issues receive further consideration as soon as possible. It also invites the Minister of Education and the university community to work together to implement the collective commitment made at the Québec Youth Summit concerning the qualification of young people.

Document complet - in French (PDF)

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