An entrance exam in English and free therapy sessions. New campaign to curb dropouts

Up to 35% of bachelor’s degree students do not make it to the finals, which means both students and universities waste a lot of time, money, and energy. Masaryk University has launched a wide-ranging campaign to reduce the number of students dropping out. The campaign includes English entrance exams for all applicants, improved information about the content of degree courses, therapy sessions, and direct contact with the course guarantors.

One in three Czech students in bachelor’s programmes never get their diplomas, and one in four students drop out of their master’s degree studies. Masaryk University has decided to take a stand against these unflattering numbers and has presented a plan to fight the alarming dropout rate at Czech universities.

Many academics are convinced that the large number of first-year students dropping out is an indicator of the high quality of the programme.

“Many academics are convinced that the large number of first-year students dropping out is an indicator of the high quality of the programme,” says MU Rector Mikuláš Bek. He also thinks that the dropout rates are a relatively marginal topic in Czech academia. “However, there is an economic aspect to it, which is damaging. Universities allocate lecture rooms and teachers’ time, which are not efficiently used. Students lose a year of their life, which could have been used to study in a more suitable programme,” says Bek, adding that the dropout rate for students in bachelor’s degree courses at universities in Western Europe is only about five to ten per cent.

On the contrary, 39% of first-year students at Masaryk University did not make it to their second year, while the dropout rate in “long” master’s degree programmes such as medicine was 17% with a rate of 20% for regular master’s degree programmes. Courses such as medicine or law have a lower dropout rate, as these are highly sought-after, and applicants have to undergo a stringent selection process. On the other hand, the Faculty of Arts and the Faculty of Economics and Administration have a very high dropout rate because many students enrol in two degree programmes but only finish one.

Campaign to help both students and teachers

To combat this trend, Masaryk University, the second largest university in the Czech Republic, has launched a wide-ranging campaign to keep students in the lecture rooms until they graduate. One of the measures it has taken is to update the study and examination regulations and the university-wide entrance test of study skills (TSP), which now also tests the applicants’ knowledge of English. As Markéta Pitrová, the vice-rector for development, explains: “It frequently happens that after transferring from secondary school to university, students are unable to read their compulsory literature in English.”

The university has also created a student counselling office, where students can talk to experts about what they expect from their studies. It has published new, more appropriate and more informative descriptions of study programmes, which detail the content of the programmes, the requirements, and the career options for graduates. “We want our applicants to be well-informed about the programme of their choice so that they can choose the one that fits them the first time around,” hopes Pitrová. Students will also have access to a psychologist and be able to attend up to five free sessions to discuss any problems and draft a plan to deal with the situation.

Moreover, the university has launched a new portal to serve as guidance for both students and teachers. It is a directory where they can find all the pertinent information in one place, including the new descriptions of study programmes.

Both applicants and university students will be able to contact the guarantors of their programmes via email to ask questions or seek clarifications. Masaryk University has also launched an information campaign Jsme jedno ucho pro vaše problémy (“We are all ears to your problems”) to increase awareness of the counselling services, which include videos of graduates who encountered problems during their studies but were able to resolve them and graduate.

Why drop out? Too much work – or the wrong decision?

The university management conducted surveys for over a year to find out why students drop out. The one reason the dropouts cited most often was the time demands of their studies. “However, this is something we cannot do anything about. We cannot make the studies easier: studying at a university is demanding and students should count on that from the beginning,” says Pitrová.

Students complained that the studies did not meet their expectations, which is where the current campaign can help.

Another frequently cited reason was that the studies did not meet the students’ expectations, which is where the current campaign can help. Other reasons included the impossibility to work while studying, lack of motivation, and also enrolling in a more suitable programme since many secondary-school graduates are not entirely clear about their future career path.

Let students choose after the first year

According to the MU Rector Mikuláš Bek, whose second and final term in office runs out this year, it is not only the universities themselves who could improve the situation, but also an amendment to the Higher Education Act. At most western universities, students are first accepted to a faculty and only then decide on their specific programme. As Bek says, Czechoslovak universities used to have the same system in the 1930s, adding: “Top universities know very well that it is better to let students test their strengths first. This means that instead of losing their first year, it remains part of their studies. First-year students also get the best teachers – Nobel Prize laureates, who can excite and inspire them.”

Several universities have worked together to prepare a document with suggested amendments to the Higher Education Act, which has been in force since 2016. University representatives are currently discussing potential changes with the ministry of education.

The author is an editor with the daily newspaper Hospodářské noviny.