Build Back Higher: what the pandemic has taught us about student life

Ben Vulliamy, Steph Lomas, Salma Hussain and Chris Shelley have ideas to build students back higher post-pandemic.

Ben Vulliamy is the CEO of the University of York Students’ Union


Steph Lomas is VP Education at UCLan SU 


Salma Hussain is President at KCLSU


Chris Shelley is the Director of Student and Academic Services at the University of Greenwich.

When we let students in, good things happen

Ben Vulliamy

A year of navigating the pandemic taught me lots about the role of students and students’ unions role in institutional decision making. The way students engaged can’t be sustained forever given the relentless pace and complexity – but we must make sure we retain the best examples of how it sharpened the focus onto students and broader community, how it improved the use of empathy in communications and how it accelerated and emboldened change.

It has not always been normal for SU officers and the staff that support them to meet weekly with the vice chancellor or to sit on contingency groups, planning meetings and in crisis comms or major incident response sessions. Nor has it always been so deeply and consistently that students voices have been engaged in complex, high risk decisions and urgent decisions or communications. It’s still not universally normal across the sector – but where it has been, things have gone much, much better.

Where it’s done well, and there’s real joint investment in making it effective, student voice is an enabler for good quality and rapid decision making. It’s not a burden that slows down processes – it helps identify solutions swiftly and communicate them accurately. It doesn’t tell university managers what they already know – it lifts a stone on experiences and needs that are different to those required when senior staff were students. It reminds us all of the full diversity for which universities cater and shows an understanding of student behaviours and values from across social and political spectrums.

A confident student cohort

Steph Lomas

The pandemic has cost students dearly. But I don’t mean in a financial sense – many have had a crisis in their academic confidence. The pandemic has exacerbated a whole host of issues, and as we come out of the restrictions, there’s no better time to consider how we might build that confidence up and back. In September, we will potentially have a cohort of students who, despite being enrolled at the institution for a year, will feel like strangers when we return to normal. A real sense of community is vital to ensuring that students support each other and build up their academic confidence.

This year, I noted students talking about how they missed studying together, and so created a Virtual Study Room, where I try my best to motivate students in their studies and provide opportunities for the diverse community to get to know each other. It is one of my week’s favourite events. It offers students a chance to talk about self-care during a pandemic, learn new study skills and feel like they are in a library studying together. One student came and advised that they were behind on their work but was now on track – which is a testament to how much taking steps to building a learning community can make a difference.

2020 also shone a spotlight on underrepresented communities and how barriers to communities’ education remain. We saw disabled students shouting out for accessible learning opportunities, and we saw black, asian and minority ethnic student communities crying out for representation within the sector, not just their curriculum. We saw students in hardship ask for accessible financial support, and we saw women students asking for safety.

Now we have the opportunity, the space, and the duty to recreate a sector that addresses under-represented communities’ concerns as a central concern not an afterthought. We do this by listening to the communities affected and asking about their lives, not just their opinions. We should work with these communities to build them up, not ask them to do the complex grunt of the work, and work side-by-side to ensure that that recreated sector is one built on co-creation. Students will engage when they are involved in the solution and not merely addressed as data submission in identifying the problem.

What will students need to succeed?

Salma Hussein

This September, new undergraduates will have had two years of disrupted learning, combined with the emotional burden of a pandemic. This will lead to barriers to attainment, especially for our WP students who would be even more disadvantaged than their counterparts. We also have a terrible loneliness crisis where everyone will be desperate to build friendships and make up for the years they have lost. They will need each other more than ever, and that must form an important part of our plans.

We should worry too about postgraduate students. There’s a lot of assumption about their automatic readiness for study, based on their immediate prior experiences. But after suffering significant disruption, big questions surround whether these students have adequate skills gained from their prior stage to fully engage with challenging next level study. We’ll need to think carefully about how we “induct” all students in September, and depend even less than ever on our entry standards providing readiness.

We must also consider very carefully the issues of money and mental health. The danger is that counter-cyclical nature of recruitment in a recession leaves us blind to how financially precarious many in our communities are, and will be. International students in particular have scant access to hardship funds for tuition fee support but may be acutely suffering from being unable to fund their degrees. We were right to tackle digital poverty through laptops and wifi dongles. Now we need a serious, sector wide and systemic look at hardship funding.

Genies that won’t go back in the post-Covid bottle

Chris Shelley

As universities and the rest of society look ahead to a post-Covid world there are some things that will very quickly revert to their pre-pandemic “norm”. But while students may be craving gigs, bars and cafes, many have only experienced higher education in a locked down or restricted environment, so their expectations of “normal” may not be what their predecessors’ were in years gone by.

Aside from their views on online learning, we need to listen to students’ views on our support services. Only being able to access support remotely will have been frustrating for some students but the flexibility of doing so from home – or anywhere for that matter – will have been a huge benefit. For some, the stigma of seeking help from wellbeing services may have been reduced somewhat by being able to discuss their particular issue via a video or telephone call rather than in an enclosed room 8 feet away from a staff member, and we need to maintain and grow the routes for accessing support in future, not reduce them.

Given the potential for a range of additional complex mental health issues affecting our students – many may be experiencing a form of post-traumatic stress for some time to come – our services need to adapt to the needs of students more than ever.

While students have been remote from campuses we have found other ways to keep them engaged. At the University of Greenwich we have worked with our students’ union to call every student for a one-to-one discussion about their needs and issues, an intervention which has been hugely appreciated by students but one which shouldn’t be far from “business as usual” when we are telling students their experience with us will be personalised. Understanding how students are feeling about their learning and broader experience has been key to our engagement with them through the pandemic, and this shouldn’t be lost.

At Wonkfest Digital on 9-10 June we’ll be thinking through how universities can Build Back Higher after the Covid-19 pandemic. Find out more about Wonkfest Digital and get your ticket here

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