Here’s six headlines for SUs from this year’s Secret Life of Students

Livia Scott is Wonkhe's Community and Policy Officer

There was a lot of ground covered at our Secret Life of Students event. For those who missed it, or are struggling to make notes to share with teams back home, I’ve pulled together just some of the key themes covered over the day.

Primarily it is clear that students are lonely, time is more precious than ever and their overall health is worrying – all of which relate to outcomes. For SUs, much of this stuff is an access and participation issue. If your provider is not focusing on Risk 7 in the Equality of Opportunity Risk Register, you really ought to push them to – or include in your submission if they refuse to do so.

It’s also evidence that school/faculty programme events matter a lot because they are small, and they give students a better chance at meeting friends or even just coursemates, than a loud club night full of hundreds of people.

SUs are essential to this agenda, and ensuring the SU and then your institution understand the importance of putting the scaffolding in place to encourage students to take part in informal learning, in order to make a difference in improving student loneliness.

Money talks

Students are still very worried about money, and this is eating into their ability to participate in wider student life. As the Blackbullion survey pointed out recently, on average students needed £621 extra a month to feel confident they will be able to complete their degree, and only three per cent of those surveyed felt they had enough money.

From this three in four students who say money worries impact their mental health report feelings of hopelessness and seven in ten feel isolated, both things are significant indicators of poor mental health amongst student populations.

As our research with Pearson late last year demonstrated, cost of living concerns are having an impact on student’s academic performance, with those worried about covering basic costs saying they are not performing at their best academically.

Read more

Research with Pearson: Financial struggles make it harder for students to connect and engage in their university community

Only the lonely

It’s not a new concept to suggest that students are lonely. For us in Wonkhe Towers, we’ve been worried about this for several years, as there are worrying conclusions to be made from the data that demonstrate being lonely plays a significant role in student outcomes. But just how lonely they are remains shocking, no matter how many times I hear the stats.

It is clear that if students feel they have friends at university, they are more likely to say positive things about feeling part of the university community, the support they are given by academics, and even the wider support services on offer.

How lonely students say they are appears to depend on characteristics. Disabled students, including those who self-identify as Disabled, had the largest proportion of the demographics looked at in the Student Futures data on ranking “strongly agree” to the statement “I feel lonely at university”.

Read more

Jim Dickinson digs deep into the GTI/Cybil polling underpinning the UPP Foundation’s Student Futures work – and finds ways and reasons to cause students to feel more connected.

Disabled students are struggling

This poses an important challenge to the sector, as this category of students made up a third of the sample of 1,300 students. Traditionally, Disabled students are viewed to be a minority group, but with an increasing number of students declaring or identifying as Disabled, it is vital universities start to see this group of students as more typical than first presumed.

One of the main reasons students said that they did not engage with extracurriculars or opportunities on offer was because of their health and/or disability. There is a need for inclusive activities that accommodate diverse health requirements and promote wellbeing for all.

Interestingly, there was also a sense of anxiety from many students that activities were not “for them” because of their condition. This suggests there is clear work still to be done amongst clubs and societies training that goes beyond the basics of inclusivity training, and includes strategies in making activities look and feel inclusive to prospective attendees.

Some of this could include clearer communications of available activities, the provisions in place to make them accessible, or if they are open to those turning up alone. Particularly, as another reason students said they did not engage was because they struggled to access the information on what was taking place.

As one student put it, “After welcome week, it’s all too late”, as it’s not necessarily visible what the societies they saw at freshers’ fair do, nor how they can get involved. And this stuff matters for an increasingly anxious student population.

Perhaps for SUs, this is a project to make things more cohesive and clear, as well as working with the university to better centralise databases of what activity is happening in a week. If your student officers don’t know all of the activities taking place in the SU or university that week – it’s unlikely students do.

Read more

Jim Dickinson gets into the GTI/Cibyl polling underpinning the UPP Foundation’s Student Futures 2 report – and finds collective strategic challenges for universities’ growing group of Disabled students.

Many institutions run enhanced onboarding for neurodiverse students. Edward Mills reflects on his own autism diagnosis and how he uses it to help his students.

Shallow ends, please

One thing that was clear not just from the new data we discussed at the event, but from the student union officers who shared their own student stories, is that there is a real fear of joining in amongst students.

During the pandemic, there was an increase in the number of students reporting they felt depressed, suffered from low mood regularly and their levels of anxiety were higher. For the most part, after lockdown ended and things reopened the percentages of students reporting low mood or depression improved, but the levels of anxiety amongst students did not.

If anything, students appear to be more anxious than ever before. There was a perception from the qualitative comments that the perception of welcome week events was that they were being chucked in at the deep end, when actually what they needed was smaller, more local events that were easier to attend alone if needed.

As one student put it “avoid the deep end, I might drown”.

It’s hard, I think, for us to understand this anxiety if we have not experienced it, and for those running clubs and societies they are less likely to be socially anxious and thus support for them to understand the diverse needs of the students they’re working with is important.

What is also important, is that when asked what would help students feel less lonely, the things students rated as most important may come as a surprise.

Rather than ranking increased mental health support or one-to-one mentoring as important for improving a sense of community, a third (34 per cent) or students said SU events would help – a figure that was the same for both those who said they were lonely and those who said they were not lonely.

Read more

The UK is a global leader in retaining students – but are they happy or being held hostage? Jim Dickinson wants students to be satisfied.

Chapter time

Students also said that faculty/department events, extracurricular activities, and opportunities to socialise with other students were very important. All of these things are fairly basic and perhaps not where university departments would assume students want precious resources to be spent. But it seems to suggest that if you’re an SU working with an institution worrying about their budget, if they want the most “bang for their buck”, putting time, energy, and resources into getting some of this low-level community stuff right could make the biggest impact.

Additionally, we heard later in the day from colleague Adam Zeidan, Secretary General of Tampere SU in Finland, who gave delegates food for thought on student tutoring schemes the SU runs on behalf of the university. Here, every new student is given a tutor in the year above them, from the same academic discipline, responsible for introducing them to campus, and the local area, giving study tips, and organising social activities.

You can read more about tutors and why they could be impactful if applied in the UK elsewhere on the site, but the line that stuck with me from Adam was that because of student tutoring “everyone begins university knowing at least five to ten people”.

Read more

Blog: Students will support each other if they are enabled and trusted to do so

Blog: When students are tutors, belonging is built

Blog: Personal tutors can’t solve the crisis of student engagement alone

Meet the SU with 1500 student leaders and a focus on subject belonging

More time when there’s no time

Interestingly the number one thing students said would make them feel less lonely, was more time spent on campus – as well as opportunities to study with other students. Now, this is hard in a climate where every hour is precious for students and they are having to make difficult choices every day weighing up spending money to commute onto campus, or whether to instead take on an extra shift at their job and watch their sessions online later.

But even if students start to attend campus fewer times a week due to compressed timetables or frankly, less free time, it seems sensible that SUs and universities do our level best to make the time they spend on campus worthwhile.

This might include improved social spaces that are free, have plugs, and allow students to work or socialise together. I cannot count the number of times I have wandered a university campus looking for a desk and plug where I don’t have to buy a coffee first.

Or this could look like rethinking the events that we put on for students and when those events happen.

When we were visiting Dublin City SU, they told us that they have mostly stopped running evening events that begin at eight or nine, as the increase in the number of commuter students they have meant that students spent less time on campus and did not want to stay late. Instead, they wanted events and activities that fit around their classes or allowed them to make the last bus home safely.

Read more

Blog: Students need to feel more connected – to both campus and each other

Explainer: What do students think about learner analytics?

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