Asking the right questions on student lifestyle

At regular intervals a group of UK students’ unions comes together to design, fund and commission research into students’ views and experience of higher education. Previously we have looked at the student view of teaching excellence, and student perceptions of value for money.

Every year there are lots of press stories that cover surveys into student housing, costs and travel, but many are based on “research” by a commissioning organisation with an agenda, a pre-packed press release and low response rates. We wanted to know more about these issues – not to promote a new product, service or app, but to determine whether both national and institutional policy needs to change in these areas.

So our latest study covers over 8,000 students studying at over 120 providers, all appropriately weighted – and the 26 sponsoring students’ unions have access to local data that can usefully be compared against the national picture. Unlike many of the press releases on student lifestyle, it would be very silly to dismiss these results.

Student living

The results of the study are stark. Around one in five students across the UK are unhappy with their accommodation, and some 30% would change their choice of accommodation if they could. Students from state schools are more likely to live at home than those from a private school. Black, Asian, and minority ethnic (BAME) students are significantly more likely to live with their parents or guardians: 23% of minority ethnic students live at home compared to only 11% of white students.

Many universities have been expanding rapidly in recent years, but it is not at all clear that enough thought has been given to where students will live – prices are rising, and accommodation is often at a considerable distance from campus. Given that housing costs account for the bulk of student expenditure, much more needs to be done to ensure that housing is suitable and affordable – especially in London.

There is also a real danger that those from disadvantaged backgrounds miss out on key aspects of university life given their likelihood to live at home.  Institutions and policymakers need to take steps to ensure that these “day trippers” are fully included in campus life.

Student eating

We often overlook food as an issue, but with 14% of students saying that they skip meals when on-campus (and those who do so more likely to be students from POLAR quintile 1 areas), it is clear that much more needs to be done to ensure that students are able to afford to eat and eat healthily. Almost half of all students think there is a cost problem – campus catering often benefits from VAT exemptions and it’s crucial that costs reflect this benefit.

The Office for Students is now tracking academic attainment gaps, but what about wider experiences? We found that students with a private education and those who come from wealthier backgrounds are more likely to have completed an internship and they’re more likely to do volunteering or charity work while at university. Twenty nine percent of privately educated students have taken an internship, compared to only 16% of state-educated students. Forty five percent of privately educated students have done volunteering or charity work, compared to only 38% of state-educated students. And only 14% of students eligible for means-tested funding have done an internship, compared to 26% of students who are not eligible for means-tested funding.

Students in the community

As higher education expands, community engagement is a key issue for higher education providers. We asked respondents to indicate whether they feel like a member of the student community, a member of the local community, or both a student and a member of the local community. Seventy seven percent of students said they predominantly identify as a student, while just 22% said that they identify as both a student and a member of the local community.

There is considerable debate about “somewheres” and “nowheres” and real pressure building from local communities worried about the impact of “studentification” of towns and cities. The data suggests that much more can be done to build links between students and communities, to benefit both the communities they join and their own personal development.

Student wellbeing

Meanwhile, figures on wellbeing are worrying. A total of 37% of female students said their wellbeing had worsened since being at university, 42% of lesbian, gay or bisexual students report worsening wellbeing, and 45% of students from quintile 1 (most deprived areas) report their wellbeing has worsened since starting university. We tend to think of attainment gaps in course outcomes terms, but the data suggests that we need to consider mental health from both socio-economic and diversity perspectives. Above all, the higher education sector has work to do not just in supporting those with mental health issues but also to interrogate the underlying causes which may be leading to drop-out.

In so many of the areas we looked at, we saw unacceptable student life differentials when it came to social class and ethnicity. Attainment gaps aren’t just about teaching and learning, or recruitment tactics – they’re clearly often about the wider living situation that students find themselves in. If individual providers and the wider sector want to make a real difference, it’s time we looked at students’ lives holistically and tackled issues that are often in the “too difficult” tray.

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