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Article: Higher Education - Leaving Your Course Early


This article looks at what to do if you decide to leave your higher education course early. You might be thinking of transferring to a different course, moving to a different university/college or getting a job.


Every year, for a variety of reasons, some students decide they don't want to (or can't) carry on with their present course of study. There are many reasons why people want to leave their course.

For example, they might:

  • be ill
  • no longer like their course or the place they're studying
  • have changed their career plans
  • feel homesick or lonely
  • have difficulties in their personal relationships
  • have to care for a member of their family
  • be worried about money
  • find themselves unable to cope with the coursework or exams.

The reasons are endless and anyone can find themselves in one of these situations. Many students feel like this, especially in their first term.

Don't panic!

You might feel like a failure and want to escape from this difficult situation as soon as possible, but whatever you do, don't panic and make a rushed decision that you might later regret. Continue to attend lectures and complete any work assignments while you make your decisions.

Try to think positively and remember, you are not alone. However worrying it is, there are plenty of people who can help. Talking to someone will help you to think through your problems and make sensible plans for the future.

Having done this, you might decide to continue on your current course. If not, there are different options open to you.

Think about the alternatives

First of all, you need to think about whether you want to carry on with studying. Do you want to stay in full-time education and perhaps transfer to another course that will suit you better? If you do, as well as finding and choosing an alternative course, you will need to sort out the financial side of things.

Do you feel you need a break - a year off, perhaps - before resuming your studies? Do you want to get a job, or even set up your own business? Let's look at these various alternatives and the steps you need to take, although you might find that not all of them apply to you.

Staying on in education

Step one - decide what is wrong with your present course

Can you or anyone else do anything about the course to improve it? Sometimes, a small change can solve your problems, so discuss your difficulties with your course tutors, personal tutor or head of department.

You might be able to get help to catch up with your work, or to improve your time management or study skills. Perhaps you are on a modular course and could select different options to avoid subjects you dislike. Or, your course might be offered part-time or by distance learning instead of full-time, which might suit you better.

Perhaps you can opt for a different qualification at the end of the course, for example, a single honours degree rather than a joint honours degree course (or vice versa); or a Higher National Diploma (HND) rather than a degree.

Step two - get advice and help as appropriate

People you could talk to include:

  • friends and family
  • your course tutors, personal tutor or head of department
  • the education and welfare officers at the students' union
  • the student counsellor or advice service
  • student financial advisers
  • careers advisers
  • the university chaplain
  • the medical officer.

Universities and colleges also usually have online advice and guidance.

Step four - get your timing right

Consider when to leave or transfer. The rules on dropping out or transferring courses are often strict and inflexible. There are also rules about funding for future courses if you leave a course, so check this with your university or college and Student Finance England/Wales/NI. Also, check the rules on giving notice to, and paying for, your accommodation.

Step five - apply for another course if applicable

Be careful and realistic. Contact your potential new department and arrange to talk to them on an informal basis. Apply, if necessary, through UCAS. If you have a formal interview, be positive about the new course.

Step six - credits for completing part of a course

If you leave a course after completing one or more modules/years, check whether you can get any credit for completing part of the course. If you can get a certificate under a Credit Accumulation and Transfer Scheme (CATS), this gives you credits for each completed module/year and this might count towards any future full-time or part-time academic or professional course.

For example, if you have completed one full year, you might be able to use your credit to apply to the second year of a similar course at another university or college.

Step three - choosing a new course

If you feel a bigger change is called for, such as a different course or university/college, you still need to talk to your tutors. You will have to get their agreement before transferring.

Don't rush into applying for another course without looking carefully at your original reasons for going on to higher education. Are these reasons still the same? Ask yourself:

  • Do you have the ability to complete a higher education course but just made a mistake and chose the wrong one?
  • Did things go wrong because you didn't work hard enough?
  • Did other people persuade or pressurise you to choose higher education in the first place?
  • Are your original career ideas still the same?

Changing to a different course at the same university or college can sometimes be a fairly smooth procedure, depending on your original course and when you apply to change. Some courses now also have start dates in January, so you might be able to switch without having to wait until the next academic year.

Changing university or college is going to be a more complicated process, because it will usually involve applying again through UCAS and leaving your accommodation. Many universities and colleges provide a checklist of the steps you will need to go through.

An alternative might be to apply to the Open University, if that is an option that would help you.

Getting a job

There is more detailed information on finding a job or becoming self-employed in other articles. However, here is some general guidance.

Don't react against all those years of study by rushing into a job you don't really want to do unless it is purely a short-term means of getting some money. A year off to sort yourself out, or get valuable work experience, is usually acceptable to an employer. However, if you delay too long you are likely to be competing with other members of your year group who will have graduated with better qualifications than you.

Make sure you can present 'leaving your course early' in a positive light to a future employer. They want to see that you will have motivation and an interest in the work you are applying to do.

Did you have a career in mind when you originally chose your course? Do you still want to do it? There are careers that you can enter (at a lower level) with A levels and still study for a professional qualification part-time while working. Or, you might decide to re-apply through UCAS the following year.

Discuss your situation with your university or college careers advisers and/or your local careers company or advice and guidance centre. They can:

  • give you information on jobs and careers
  • show you how to use computer guidance programs
  • give advice on how to fill in application forms
  • tell you about training schemes
  • help you to find job vacancies.

Private employment agencies might also be able to help you to find suitable work.

Look for job vacancies in the newspapers and in specialist magazines; you can find these in your local library. You can also write to firms 'on spec' asking whether they have any suitable jobs; make sure you enclose a carefully thought-out CV and a covering letter that is targeted at the organisation you are writing to.

Register as available for work at your local Jobcentre Plus so that you can claim benefits if you need to.

When you earn over a certain amount, you will have to start repaying any student loan you have received.

If you are considering starting your own business and becoming self-employed, you can get advice from lots of places. A good starting point is the government website GOV.UK - see 'Setting up' in 'Businesses and Self-Employed'.

Other sources of advice and guidance include:

  • Jobcentre Plus
  • HM Revenue and Customs
  • careers service
  • Enterprise Agency
  • banks.

Further Information

Open University (OU)

Tel: 0845 3006090


Leaving Your Course

Publisher: Graduate Prospects

Tel: 0161 277 5200



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