Back to the future seen through the eyes of students

One thing for certain is that university life was already miles distant from the experience of most of our political leaders. Now the pandemic has transformed it into something unrecognisable from anything seen in the past. Two events this week added to the rising tide of information about how students across the UK are coping and adapting to the recent pressures. Also, their likely reaction to the ongoing pressures they will find into the near future. Our students are in the middle of a seismic shift leaving the past structures behind. When asking for directions in Ireland, you might be met with the profound old joke ‘I wouldn’t start from here’.  Yet ‘here’ is all we have, however misdirected we were in the past.

Both the ‘Student Futures Manifesto’, and accompanying surveys from the UPP Foundation, and the ‘’Belonging and inclusion survey’ from Pearson and Wonkhe illuminate the developing student attitudes to higher education and what they see as success. The reports raise some very important issues regarding a significant proportion of students feeling excluded in some way.  The reasons are varied, complex and will take considerable effort and understanding to overcome. Universities and government will need to react positively. Despite these observations, there still appears to be a ‘blind spot’ regarding the quantifiable burdens of finance, part-time jobs, commuting and caring that some students endure.  Mental health driven by stress on such students can often be distilled down to time and its availability as a precious resource.  The survey questions did not address this directly, but there were some glimpses under the rock of this ‘hidden’ aspect of student life.

Student Futures.

Earlier this week on Monday, The UPP Foundation Student Futures Commission produced its report ‘A Student Futures Manifesto’.  This was eagerly anticipated after its launch almost a year ago. The TEFS response to the call for evidence is here (TEFS 9th July 2021 ‘Student futures in a divided society’). The outcome is highly valuable in focusing attention on the many pressures facing our students.  The eighty-six page report drew on evidence from oral evidence sessions, a student focus group, and a survey of Vice-Chancellors. These were in addition to the analysis of two student surveys: one of 2,147 students in May 2021 and the other of 2,094 in October and November 2021 (from 52 universities across GB, not Northern Ireland). The main emphasis was divided into ‘Teaching and Learning’, ‘Student Experience and Wellbeing’, and ‘Employability’. These were sub-divided into recommendations related to:

  1. Support for students before they reach university
  2. An induction into university life for each year of study
  3. Support for mental health and wellbeing
  4. A clear outline of the teaching students will receive and the necessary tools to access it
  5. Activities inside and outside the curriculum that build skills, networks and communities
  6. A clear pathway towards graduate outcomes

On student experience and wellbeing, there was considerable emphasis and concern placed on the mental health of students. This was evidenced by a staggering 73% saying the Covid pandemic had a “very or somewhat negative impact on their mental health”.  It implied that most had been placed under excessive pressure. This also implies that the result is a function of the pressures experienced and not the inherent mental state of the students involved.

A two-tier system.

The divide between those with more resources the others is acknowledged by the Commissioner, Rickard Brabner with “we too often see a ‘two nations’ student experience, with middle class students more likely to take part and benefit from the wider university experience and community than their peers who take second jobs, who have caring responsibilities, or who don’t follow a traditional route into HE”. However, the underlying causes might have been explored further since they are at the root of inequality in our universities.

Learning shortfalls.

The impact on learning is what bothers most students. The majority (57%) reported a negative impact on the knowledge they needed to succeed on their course. Similarly, 52% were below where they personally expected to be in their academic studies. This was a large proportion to perceive they were underachieving; whether correct or not. The need for more feedback in person and the isolation from lecturers and tutors was taking its toll and probably generated greater anxiety than usual. This was reflected in the vast majority (90%) wanting to return to in person teaching with lectures recorded. However, lectures without recordings were not an option offered in the survey.  Connection with other students was also valued highly (57%). Worryingly, for many universities, two thirds were not satisfied that university had helped them “find a job or work experience over the last 12 months”. It sets out a major expectation challenge for the future.

Findings were well received.

Needless to say, the reception from the Higher and Further Education Minister, Michelle Donelan, reflected the government’s drive to put further pressure on universities, “Every single student deserves to enjoy a first-class experience in our world-class higher education sector, and I am pleased to see there is a focus on challenges that can often be overlooked, such as the transitions between years of study”.

The pressure on students was well put by the head of the University Alliance, Vanessa Wilson with, “This important research throws into sharp relief the extraordinary difficulties that students have experienced throughout the Covid-19 pandemic. The impact of Covid-19 on student mental health has clearly been seismic”

Note: The UPP Foundation was created in 2016 by University Partnerships Programme (UPP), the UK’s leading provider of on-campus residential and academic accommodation infrastructure.

Belonging and inclusion.

The results of the ’Belonging and inclusion survey’ were introduced on Tuesday at an ‘in person’ event organised by Wonkhe, ‘The Secret Lives of Students’. The results were well summarised the same day by Gail Capper of Pearson and Debbie McVitty of Wonke in a posting ‘Belonging inclusion and mental health are all connected’.  The survey covered 5,223 students in fifteen student unions in GB (Northern Ireland was not included) who filled in a complex questionnaire.  Again, there was much to commend the research that illuminated many of the stresses inflicted by failing to ‘belong’.

‘Belonging’ was seen as the ‘key variable’ in whether students persist with their studies and are successful.  This idea emerged from the Higher Education Academy’s “What works?” student retention and success programme that dates back to well before the pandemic years in 2017. Certainly, the pandemic restrictions will have exacerbated this effect. But with 69% of respondents still saying they felt they ‘belonged’ at university, it begs the question about what is happening with the other 31%. It appears the causes will be more complex and there are crucial ‘blind spots’ missed in the current considerations.

Some clues revealing the ‘blind spots’.

TEFS has stressed in earlier posts the importance of finding time to study and engage with a university as the most important factor in success. The relevant posts are listed below at the end of this article. 

It comes as little surprise that 80% of students cited their academic studies as the top priority in the ’Belonging and inclusion survey’. Far fewer cited social life (≈30%) or clubs and societies (≈15%) as a priority with ≈50% prioritising ‘balancing life with work or study’.  This hints at a time issue driving the priorities. Simply put, a student might be more likely to forgo a society or social life to protect study time.  Worryingly 15% felt ‘excluded from my university because of my financial circumstances’.  On one side of the two-tier divide one student said,

“Especially after my involvement in more societies this year, I have really felt that I do belong at my university.”

However, the converse view was well put by two students with,

“Coming from a working-class background it can feel like I’m from another world to some of my peers.”


“Everyone is really supportive of each other and feels like a good community to be a part of. But there have been times I’ve felt out of place because I am from a lower-class family and can’t afford the resources other people have access to.”

Financial pressure strips out time to study and ‘belong’.

The financial pressures compounded by part-time jobs and commuting are a reality for many students (see TEFS 23rd August 2019 ‘Students working in term-time: Commuter students and their working patterns’). This creates a ‘two-tier’ experience from the outset. This is because ≈64% of students are not burdened by jobs, and many of those with jobs also commute to university. The following figure sums up the situation in 2019 before the pandemic hit. Around 10% of students commuted up to 20 miles and worked up to 20 hours per week. This is not sustainable for either studies or a social life.

Figure 3 taken from TEFS 23rd August 2019 ‘Students working in term-time: Commuter students and their working patterns’. Source data: Advance HE and HEPI ‘Student Academic Experience Survey 2019’ using the ‘Youthsight’ student panel.

The profound impact of too little time.

Many of the diverse stresses on students can often be distilled down to not having enough time to study.  The full impact of the pandemic restrictions on time available, access to jobs and finance has yet to be quantified fully. Yet, neither survey reported this week asked direct questions about time devoted to activities outside university and the impact on studying.  However, there were some glimpses of what the impact of restricted time has on students.  One of these was their attitude to working remotely. Aside from considerable problems with digital access and poor home conditions, when asked ‘What do you see as the benefits of remote working?’ the majority were clear with ‘flexibility’ cited as the main benefit. This was closely followed by ‘not having to commute’. It also explains why the idea of recorded lectures is going to remain popular in the new order emerging. It will allow students to work around shift patterns. But universities must beware. Rehashing old, recorded lectures will not be tolerated.

This figure is constructed from the source data in the ‘Student Futures Manifesto’ May 2001 Survey.

Students fitting in job shifts with studies has been around for a long time and remains a ‘blind spot’ in most institutions. This means that assignments and expectations are not adjusted to accommodate the pressures on a substantial minority. Most lecturers teaching in the front line will be familiar with some students complaining about deadlines where they find they have run out of time to complete a crucial assignment properly. Some staff may ask their students why this is and get a multitude of answers. In my experience these can range from financial issues, accommodation problems, caring responsibilities, commuting, and particularly excessive hours in part-time jobs.  Other less frequent ones I found were a punishing schedule of training for the Olympics or hiding from paramilitaries.  The one thing they had in common was lack of time as the key resource. They feel the tasks are becoming impossible as achieving a good degree fades before their eyes. It should be clear to anyone observing that stress and anxiety are the result.

Removing the source of the stress is better than treating the symptoms.

Note: TEFS has highlighted in the articles below the anomaly of part-time jobs and commuting that brings about an unfair ‘two-tier’ system.

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