Student futures are under scrutiny as reality bites

Asking about the future shape of Higher Education

The newly formed  Student Futures Commission held its inaugural event online last week as it released the results of a very recent survey of UK students. The commission is a much needed and valuable initiative that is looking toward the way students might expect Higher Education to develop in the coming year. The year will be a watershed one for all universities as expectations from students become firmer and less compromising. Old assumptions about what students expect will pass away fast with flexible learning through online and face to face teaching being preferred. The flexibility will be needed if commuting, part-time jobs, and other responsibilities are to continue for many students. With students demanding discounts on fees for the current year, expect a further demand that fees should be cut across the board.

Last week saw the first event of the ‘Student Futures Commission’ that was launched by the UPP Foundation on the 19th May 2021. Its aim is to look forward to Higher Education in the UK in the post-pandemic era.  It is a big task, and the Commission is well set up to identify needs with the urgency required as they call for evidence across the sector.

The stated aim is to “investigate and promote the actions that universities can take from September 2021 to support students to make the most of their remaining time at university and as well as those who are starting their journey in higher education this year”.

This is an optimistic approach to the pandemic ending soon and an assumption that students will return to open campuses without lockdowns in the Autumn. However, this idea is likely to require a readjustment as a third wave of infections takes hold this summer.

The commission is following a similar path to the UPP Foundation’s ‘Civic Universities Commission’ in 2018/19 that became the Civic University Network.  See report ‘Truly Civic: Strengthening the connection between universities and their places’ (UPP Foundation February 2019).

Who are the Commission?

The chair, Mary Curnock-Cooke, is former Chief Executive of UCAS with a depth of experience and understanding of the workings of Higher Education in the UK. The Commission is partnered by WONKHE, who report on Higher Education Policy,  Law firm, Shakespeare Martineau and student services provider, Group GTI.

Her fellow commissioners number seventeen and include four academics, three of whom lead universities. Refreshingly, there are two student representatives including Hillary Gyebi-Ababio, Vice President for Higher Education at the National Union of Students.  Alongside representatives from the partners and other student support organisations, Universities UK is also represented by Chief Executive, Alistair Jarvis.

The commission itself is an initiative by the UUP foundation (see Footnote), a charity founded by the University Partnerships Programme (UPP) company that provides accommodation services across fifteen universities in the UK.

Student survey results offer more insight into expectations.

This was the main point of the launch event, and it sets the scene for the likely pressures that will emerge later in 2021. Curnock-Cook contributed an explanatory article about the work of the commission on the WONKHE site the same day with, ‘Student Futures Commission: students’ hopes beyond Covid-19’

The survey was carried out by Cybyl a division of GTi. They work for schools and universities as clients and carry out annual surveys that “reach students in 180+ universities across UK and Ireland and 2,000+ UK schools, covering the student demographics of most interest to our clients”.

This survey involved 2,147 university students from across the UK between 14th and 19th of May. The data released indicates the student responses were from 118 universities across the UK.  All 24 Russell Group universities were included along with 31 pre-92 and the rest post-92 universities.  The UPP Foundation provides a good summary of the results.

The headline results showed 59% of the students want face-to-face teaching as a top priority for September 2021 onwards. Over half did not participate in extracurricular activities over the last year. While most felt a university degree would help in securing jobs after graduation, the challenges of the last year were taxing with close to four out of five students (78%) reporting a negative effect on their mental health. Many (63%) said they were they expected to be academically.

Despite this, it appears the shift to online teaching was not picked out as a bad thing overall. There was a preference by many for a mixture of face to face and online provision. This ranged from 45% seeking mostly in-person teaching with online teaching “once or twice per week”. Yet, 21% wanted to study mostly online and 6% fully online. Only 29% wanted fully face to face teaching.

There may be an indication as to why this is hidden in the data released and there are profound implications for the coming year.

Behind the headlines and other pressures.

The survey asked many more searching questions than the headline conclusions suggest, 404 in total.  The gender balance was 66% female and 32% male. Asked if their parents had a university degree, 55% said yes and 42% said no, strangely the rest were not sure about this point. Only 32% attended a non-selective state school.

Recorded lectures have been the desire of many students for some time, but access to help from tutors is also needed.  Many would probably like to restrict the time commuting and the survey indicated that 14% commuted with the rest better placed in private accommodation or university halls (4% owned their own homes).

The responses did not surprise but yielded clues about why online learning is so popular. This probably relates to the desire for more flexibility in devoting more time to studies. When asked “What do you see as the benefits of remote working?”, the most popular answer by far was ‘flexibility’ at 77%.  ‘Not having to commute’ was a close second at 71% and 47% thought of seeking somewhere ‘cheaper/nicer to live’. They were not asked if holding down term-time jobs might be a factor. In my experience this was a strong driver in the call for recorded lectures and more materials being made available online.

I put a lot of material on line for many years before it was more commonplace and concluded that recorded lectures were not a solution alone, or at all. For many they were not as valued as other well structured online support. I found a lot more was needed.

Part-time jobs were a clear issue.

The survey rightly asked about part-time jobs and access to these often explains why more flexible study time is wanted by many students.

A staggering 66% indicated that they “wanted to find part-time work over the past 12 months to support me financially whilst studying”. This was spread fairly evenly across the various subject areas of Business, STEM, Arts, Humanities and social science, Law and Medicine and related.

When asked “Were you able to find part time work over the past 12 months to support you financially?” 59% said they could not. However, it was also not clear how they might have coped and what were the negative consequences on studying. The remarkable resilience of some students was illustrated by 14% finding suitable work and 28% finding at least some work to help with finances.

TEFS has produced a series of posts on this topic summarised in ‘University student part-time working is a dangerous blind spot’ (16th June 2020). A TEFS freedom of information request at that time confirmed that nearly every university had much of an idea what were the job commitments of their students ‘University students who work part-time need support – or they will drop out’ (The Guardian 16th June 2020).

The downside of online learning is access to resources.

Concerns about stable internet access by students have dogged the last year. These will have to be resolved as a priority and no doubt the commission will be looking closely at this.  Nearly half (47%) of the students said that    a stable internet connection created challenges for them in home learning. Access to suitable hardware was a problem for 31%, something that seems was not fully resolved.

The context of the findings.

The survey carried out by the Student Futures Commission is timely and highly valuable in focusing the attention of universities and government alike. The results emerge at a time when many students are looking closely at what they get for their fees. Calls for a massive rebate for the current 2020/21 academic year are only to be expected.  Yesterday it was reported that ‘Students in England call for 30% Covid discount on tuition fees’ (The Guardian 31st May 2021). They have a strong case since many of the expensive facilities at their universities were put beyond their reach. With the shape of Higher Education set to change well into the future, the cost and who pays will emerge as a key battlegrounds.


Footnote: Who are UUP Foundation?

The UPP Foundation is a registered charity (Charity number: 1166323) that offers grants to universities, charities and other higher education bodies.

The UPP Foundation helps universities in maintaining the ‘University for the Public Good’ and the wider higher education with an income of £278,000 noted in 2019. The UPP Foundation Company (number: 09928856) was created by its parent, University Partnerships Programme (UPP) and incorporated in 2015 with the aim of “Advancing education for the public benefit”. It is a provider of on campus student accommodation for fifteen Universities in the UK. UPP is in turn the trading part of UPP Group Holdings Limited  (Company number 05016028) founded in 2004. Its total assets, excluding liabilities was reported in August 2020to be £2.28 billion.

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