In any academic year, things happen. Sometimes those things are related to manifesto promises and SU strategic plans. Sometimes they’re not. Some years you get to focus all year on your priorities. Some years you don’t.
Forewarned is forearmed and all that – so here as we do every August and December we’ve picked out the ten issues we think could be worth thinking about and prepping up for in the medium term.
And remember, if you’d like us to present at or contribute to a discussion at your SU’s board, just get in touch. We’d be happy to help.
1. Access and participation
In England, there’s a new Director of Access and Participation about to begin work at the Office for Students, with a new agenda – demanding that universities intervene in schools to raise attainment, and expecting universities to improve support for disadvantaged students so that fewer drop out, and more go on to get graduate jobs. Accompanying that will be a demand that universities rip up their current Access and Participation Plans and write new ones – and that creates both a challenge and an opportunity for SUs.
If you’re prepared and ready, there’s a fresh opportunity to ensure that the SU and its activities is part of the delivery story on reducing drop out and improving graduate employability – which will mean better data sharing and more funding. It’s also an opportunity to broaden and deepen the level of student consultation and engagement with students – but you’ll want to make sure that’s done through the SU rather than around it.
In a speech and a letter, ministers have set new expectations on access and participation. Jim Dickinson and David Kernohan wonder how universities will respond.
Blog: An open letter from two SUs to the new Director for Fair Access and Participation.
Briefings: This is what SUs (in England) need to know about IfS’ new social mobility stats, what role do SUs have in Access and Participation Plans and did SUs make a difference on access and participation?
2. Free speech
In England, the Freedom of Speech (Higher Education) Bill appears to be “stuck” pending what is likely to be major surgery behind the scenes before it hits the Lords. The government may have defeated all the opposition amendments in the commons, but the Lords will be harder to navigate. Still on the table are issues like the overlapping complaints procedures that would exist, the fact that Oxford and Cambridge’s college SUs have been exempted, and the sheer complexity of the whole picture given that the government is also piloting two other bits of legislation through parliament that purport to balance freedom of expression with protection from harm – an Online Safety Bill and a Human Rights Bill.
SUs will want to take steps to ensure that work on curriculum and institutional decolonisation, anti racism campaigns, bystander initiatives and anonymous harassment reporting is protected. And now would be a good time to work out which Lords have a link to your uni – many will be only too pleased to meet you to discuss the issues, and many will treat you to lunch while you’re there!
See all of our coverage on the Free Speech Bill here on the site.
3. Building confidence
When it comes to student involvement this term, almost every SU is reporting a similar situation. There seems to be no shortage of students wanting to join in and get involved – but there does seem to be a genuine shortage of students prepared to stand up and lead, in relation to projects, positions, or even officer roles – especially when it comes to traditionally underrepresented groups.
That could be a worry when it comes to elections or even clubs and socs elections this coming term – but the good news is that SUs have been here before. A term that is much more focussed on building students’ confidence, nurturing talent and encouraging students to consider stepping forward than usual is likely to help. And so is a commitment to making sure that leadership positions are manageable and able to be held by the full diversity of the student body.
How should we encourage and strengthen students’ contribution to their own and their wider communities? Patrick O’Donnell, Richard Brabner and Jim Dickinson look to the future.
Jim Dickinson and Rosie Hunnam interrogate the student opportunities lost to the pandemic, and gather intel on what it would take to build them, and the student community they support, back higher.
4. Record breaking anxiety
Student mental health continues to be a big concern. A remarkable half of all students polled in November in England self-reported “very high” anxiety (a score of 9 or 10 out of 10), rising to almost six in ten (58 percent) for those who attended 0 hours of in-person teaching, learning or placement in the previous week. Meanwhile 13 percent of students reported low life satisfaction (a score of 4 or below out of 10), increasing to 19 percent for those attending 0 hours. This group also reported higher levels of loneliness.
We’ve argued before that there’s a tendency in the higher education sector to think of mental health issues as individual, non academic, student support services’ problem and something that has to be endured or survived to get the best grades. But the stats are starting to suggest that mental health issues – especially anxiety – look instead to be collective, influenced by academic practice (both positively and negatively), everyone’s problem and anyway – being a student and learning should be fun, not some ordeal to be survived. SUs would be wise to prep up to lobby for things separate to “more counselling” – anyone with any level of responsibility for the teaching and learning experience in higher education should probably be asking themselves right now “how can my decisions or practice reduce anxiety in my students”. Better still, they ought to be talking to students.
Have a look at all of our coverage on student mental health on the site.
Briefing: What if we viewed student anxiety as an academic issue?
5. A new tertiary super body
In Wales, the Tertiary Education and Research (Wales) Bill was laid before the Senedd on 01 November 2021. For students, it’s like being caught between two stools – a harsh regulator in England that treats students like consumers, and a Scottish system that closely aligns the money universities get with government priorities through “outcome agreements”. Both are a feature of the new Bill.
The good news is that the Bill looks set to strengthen student voice with the creation of a new learner voice code. But there are major problems with the Bill when it comes to student protection – both from course changes and in relation to safety, mental health and universities’ duty of care. SU lobbying on these issues could make a massive difference as the Bill continues its passage through the Senedd.
Briefing: This is what SUs need to know about the Tertiary Education and Research (Wales) Bill.
6. Rebalancing supply against demand
Right around the UK, we have a “demand-led” system where the aggregate preferences of students have an influence over what courses are put on. The question is what you do to protect the interests of students when the market is in a volatile state. At an institutional level, if you end up with too many students on some courses the staff might struggle to cope. If you end up with too few students you might be carrying too many costs – so you might end up cutting courses or running redundancy programmes that see services for students slashed.
Almost all universities we talk to are conscious of major churn in the student market, and having been focussed on Covid for a couple of years are now (re)turning their attention to student numbers across their course portfolio. So there’s a decent long term argument that SUs should be better at operating at “underneath” the averages. Across Europe it’s much more common to find structures that combine societies, social activity and representation at course, faculty or department level – and arguably the vast differences in the issues and the nature of the student experience in large multi purpose universities in the UK necessitates a look at these sorts of structures in the medium term.
Student rents are growing faster than inflation – with big impacts on quality, safety and social mobility. Jim Dickinson wants to see the plan.
As universities prepare to enrol record numbers of students, Jim Dickinson asks what is stopping more from meaning worse.
Briefing: Under the surface – interrogating the student experience at subject level.
7. UCU industrial action
At the time of writing the dispute rumbles on. Technically there are two disputes on – one on pensions and one on pay and conditions, but UCU always find it harder to get members out on strike over pay, so even if a settlement looks likely in one of them UCU will be keen to frame the two disputes “as one” to keep the pressure on over the other.
As it stands, UCU has been keen to make sure that “action short of a strike” counts – and that may mean support for students in the form of marking and assessment is later than usual. In the new year, the pattern of any more strikes will largely be determined by its balloting process. Experience tells us that pre-Xmas strikes rarely cause student concern – but as the year ticks on student support for action tend to peel away. SUs will have to consider both their political position and whether to support, reject or facilitate “large groups” complaints – which could well put pressure on employers to resolve the dispute(s).
Briefing: The ultimate guide to student rights when there’s industrial action.
Blog: New supercomplaints procedures could be a gamechanger for SUs.
8. Student futures
This year we’ve been supporting a project on student futures as we emerge from the pandemic – and when the project publishes its final report in February belonging is likely to be a major focus. We’re talking in two ways here – academic belonging (academic confidence, assessment anxiety, assessment and feedback, disruption) and social capital belonging (do I fit in here, are there people like me here, do I have any friends, can I build a viable network here).
The interim report articulated a sense of low confidence and uncertainty among students and pointed to a number of areas where the sector ought to have acted this term. Whether it did or not, SUs will want to consider in grant discussions how their activities might contribute to academic and social belonging as it emerges as a major planning theme for 2022/23.
University leaders shared their views on post-Covid priorities with the UPP Foundation Student Futures Commission. Commission chair Mary Curnock Cook finds that “belonging” is key.
9. White paper
In England we’re still awaiting a Higher Education White Paper, which as well as stuff on free speech, essay mills and warm words on mental health is likely to settle the university and funding issues that have been swirling around for a while. We’re expecting it to land in January once the “Levelling up” white paper has been published. Student number controls based on subjects, student outcomes or applicant results at GCSE or A level remain on the table, as do fees freezes or cuts and/or changes to the repayment scheme for student loans.
Students’ unions will want to ensure that they have time and capacity to devote to any campaigning activity that might become necessary – but also to consider how they might approach any cuts to funding that might be felt within the university, as well as explaining to students what’s really happening in the face of what is likely to be some pretty full-on propaganda from government.
All our coverage on the Post-18 review of fees and funding.
Will Westminster ministers dare to lower the student loan repayment threshold after a week of concern about the tax rates facing graduates? Jim Dickinson reads the runes.
10. Labour market
There are still major labour market issues around that seem to be hitting SUs’ ability to recruit more junior career staff. Who knows whether this is an artefact of Brexit and the pandemic that’s temporary or represents something more permanent – but either way many SUs are starting to think about alternative staffing and delivery models that involve student staff. Could a campus-wide focus on student staff help both with this and the graduate employability issues referenced above?
If students need to work during term time, how can we ensure those jobs are high quality and well paid? Jim Dickinson sweats the asset.
11. Secret lives
In February there is the return of “The Secret Life of Students” – our unmissable student experience conference that this year is all about Doing Diversity Differently. It’s about rethinking the outdated model of designing learning environments based on an imagined “normal” student and then applying sticking plaster interventions based on diverse student characteristics. A new approach is needed to stay in step with how students think about diversity, experience higher education in diverse ways, and what a genuinely diverse student body might need from professionals, and each other to feel that they belong in higher education.
We’ll have killer speakers, hot debates and exciting new insights – this will be the event to be at if you’re looking to understand the students we have and the ones that are coming. Last year almost half the delegates to the event were from SUs and we’re hoping that the same is true again this year. And if you’d like to come for free by helping out at this event and its sister event “Making Sense of Higher Education”, do get in touch to see if there’s any spaces left on our volunteer programme.
12. Bubbling under
As well as all that, we’re expecting:
- OfS to progress “expectations” work around university management of safeguarding and harassment casework. Wales and Scotland won’t want to be far behind for obvious reasons;
- A formal consultation on a new National Student Survey with a PGT version;
- UKRI to launch work on a “new deal” for PGR students;
- We’re expecting much more work on the “outcomes” of international students including a close look at the international students attainment gap;
- The Buildings safety bill which will create new student engagement duties in both private and public halls;
- Almost every university’s accounts – all due to be published early in the new year – will likely show a surplus. Maybe a fee refund was affordable after all!
There will be other things, and as ever there will be local priorities too. We’ll do all we can at Wonkhe SUs to help you prep up to intervene in and influence these debates, and as ever if you have something you’d like us to write about or advise on you can always get in touch.
For now – have a good break!