Jim is an Associate Editor at Wonkhe

Top tip! The student officers at your SU aren’t going to help finesse the comms on a controversial decision they weren’t involved in.

Is he talking about us? Probably.

I’ve seen a lot of ham-fisted attempts at communication with students and SUs over the past six weeks, most of which appear to make the fatal and elementary mistake of thinking only about communicating one way.

Listening, noticing, and acting on what students are saying is apparently much harder.

What are students saying?

Here’s an example. There’s lots of research floating about that says that students’ “plans haven’t changed” and that therefore we’ll all be OK.

This is an example of hearing only what we want to hear. Most of the research that says that is either badly designed, or crafted by people who desperately want the year to carry on as is. It’s Kubler-Ross denial with a survey to prove it.

We all want out of the lockdown, and we’re all “planning” to be out of it soon. But none of these surveys are asking students if they’d still plan to come in September if the whole of next term was online and they might have to spend most of it alone in their room.

Here’s another example. Lots of people keep telling me that students will still enrol in September “because the alternatives are so awful”. They’ll tell you that foreign travel is hardly an attractive option, and that jobs will not be plentiful, and that the last few recessions have seen more going to university.

I constantly hear this argument from people for whom that trade off was simple in their youth. It assumes that student life in 2020 on a maintenance loan, and all the costs alongside, is some kind of paradise in comparison to the dole. It just isn’t.

This Facebook Live on applying to university from the other day is a case in point. The Q&A is fine – the orthodox answers to the orthodox questions. It’s the comments from the applicants and current students that scroll up alongside that are both eye-opening and eye-watering. They don’t give much of an impression of feeling listened to.

It’s so funny

Here’s another example. One of the more pervasive and preposterous myths I’ve heard during the play out of the pandemic is the idea that students aren’t talking to each other any more.

Cut off from their usual friendship networks, this surreal theory misreads deep feelings of loneliness for lack of communication. There’s a difference.

Lots of us that, in truth, have far fewer friends than we had in our youth, are really feeling the crisis – because the rhythms and patterns of work show up that problem and reflect it back to us. We then project, assuming that students are feeling the same thing in the same way. But as I say, it’s different.

It’s certainly true that students who left home to “go to” university are missing each other’s physical presence, and yearning for the unforced social activity and connection that a large campus in a university town or city generates when compared to Zoom “fun”. But they’re still managing multiple messaging services – and not only are the university WhatsApp groups as alive as ever, but the ones full of old school friends have been reanimated too, as time at home rekindles memories and contexts of time past.

Top trumps

What that’s doing is generating that most dangerous (or, depending on your perspective, empowering) activity of all when it comes to the student experience – comparison. Immersion in a course and a cohort can often prevent it, but ever since the crisis hit we’ve seen intense waves of students comparing how they’re being treated and getting angry as a result.

Students compare all the time. Are they giving you awful scores on NSS Assessment and Feedback? That’s because they’re comparing. Want to generate a huge and visceral sense of injustice? Have some students come back physically earlier next academic year than others – really make them see and feel the cross-subsidies, why don’t you.

For all this online teaching stuff, without even a vague sense of what minimum or acceptable or adequate looks like, students will talk to each other – and regard something else that is better as a standard – that their experience ought to be living up to.

When I did a lot of SU officer training, I used to talk about the injustice step on the “apathy staircase”. We generally put up with things when we don’t know better. But injustice is generated by someone comparing their own experience – either to someone else’s, or to a standard, an expectation or a right. Student “unrest” hasn’t manifested so far partly because there have been no standards for the online alternatives this term, and partly because the whole country has basically been in this together.

But think about it. The goodwill is shattered the moment that -this week – one student gets an online lecture and the next just gets “sent a PDF”. Or the moment that, next term, one student gets F2F seminars for £9k, but the other one doesn’t. More so if you’ve made them rent a room in halls.

Come on feel the signal

We misread the signals all the time. For this term’s teaching, students can recognise that everyone has put in lots of effort, and may well have fed that back. But that doesn’t mean they regard the output as good enough – and for some, bad or overstretched or indifferent teaching is still bad or overstretched or indifferent teaching when it manifests via a webcam.

We saw this national comparison process roll out when some universities cancelled third term rent but some didn’t. We see it now as students ask impossibly stretched universities for financial help but get a different answer from those that can afford to send a laptop to a poor student because there’s only two of them enrolled.

We saw it when some providers implemented “no detriment” policies but some held out, pretending that the public or regulators would somehow lose confidence in that university’s academic standards if it did something outrageous like assume all students have been affected by the pandemic and associated lockdown, and put in place mitigation as a result.

The student experience

We’ve also started to see it as students have started to actually experience this term’s online teaching. Both Twitter and Facebook groups are alive with anecdotal tales, and the Student Hut’s Covid tracker provides clear clues. TSH is a pretty smart outfit (it won an OfS contract on tracking student opinion), and this particular coalmine canary says that three in four students are calling for universities to refund their tuition fees due to ongoing university closures.

According to the government, they can whistle as long as their online alternatives are “adequate”, there’s no refund if “the quality is there” and anyway they can always “complain”. But who defines “adequate” or “quality” right now? TSH also says that 6 in 10 students don’t think the online learning provided by their institution is good enough – and the support around it looks like a problem too. “From inconsistent communication and lesson planning” to “lack of support on how best to learn online”, it says that students feel that the lockdown learning experience “isn’t coming close” to their normal in-person lectures and classes. As one student puts it:

Lecturers don’t bother with online classes, work is poorly explained and we’re bombarded with emails that tell us nothing new.”

Is it objectively fair that TSH finds that students are ten times more likely to feel positive where their university has adopted a “no detriment” policy? Of course not. But it’s the comparison that counts.

It’s so unfair

Students are not happy – and the tempting thing for universities and government would be to make another dangerous assumption, egged on by OfS guidance that variously talks about online alternatives offering “broad equivalence” and “reasonable equivalence” – that as long as what they currently offer in the face to face teaching and assessment space is somehow replicated online, it’ll all be OK.

They’re buying three things – teaching and assessment; services and facilities; and a wider experience/place/social capital. They pay for the first two. But right now they’re only really getting the first one, and an emergency version at that. See the problem?

As The End of College author Kevin Carey points out in this prescient thread, it’s not that teaching is happening on Zoom – it’s that that is all that’s happening. For most “taught” students in the UK, student life is quite rich – as well as formal contact time there’s part time work, sports clubs, student societies, travelling around a town/city, and both organised (and disorganised, casual) social activity. There’s also pottering around a campus, finding somewhere to sit in the library and queuing up for a latte in Costa.

Strip away most of those components, and even if the online conversion has been done with skill, the “volume” of teaching on most courses starts to make the “experience” feel impossibly thin, and subject to much closer scrutiny. And as I say, that’s if it’s been done with skill – or “reasonable skill and care”, as consumer law would have it.

That’s the bones of the real crisis that’s coming. When students in strike-addled institutions were complaining about their tuition fees and demanding calculated numbers of hours back, the sector squandered all its goodwill by yebbuting back with reminders about the wider student experience.

That’s what is done at the front end of the process too – there aren’t many universities “sold” to students (even as I type) on the teaching or the assessment, but instead on the lifestyle, the city, the experience and the social capital on offer.

As Carey puts it:

They are sold a story – about family and community and experience… people believe the story, and pay for it, in part because the story can be true, but also because believing it is an act of building social capital with value beyond what you learn in class, whether or not the story is true.

Immersion thanks

Belief in that story is only possible if you’re immersed in it. A premature end to the academic year when the whole country is fighting over loo rolls is one thing. Come September, if much of the tale is missing – but you’re still paying for both the fees that supposedly fund it and the rent that gives physical access to it (all while the rest of the country feels like it’s getting back to normal) – we will be in real trouble.

What doesn’t help is that we’re in a game of clarity chicken right now. No-one wants to admit how much of the student experience could be gone, for fear it’ll damage numbers. And it means our demand models are fatally faulty. The danger? As soon as the full horror of the paucity of next academic year hits both applicants and continuing students, they pull out of coming at the last minute – reasonably deferring until they can get what we told them they could have.

Or worse we make, in long term terms, the most fatal misreading of student opinion of all – mistaking their willingness to (re)enrol as a signal of happiness about it. Higher education will for sure continue to be a sought after, positional good – but if they stick it out, incur the fee debt, and pay for a term’s (or a year’s) accommodation they’ll never use (or, indeed, are trapped in), they for the rest of their lives will resent the lack of “magic” they were told they would experience, but ended up seeing right through – all from the suffocating window of their tiny, tiny room.

4 responses to “Communication with students means listening as well as talking

  1. And how to do you propose to “solve” this? Students can complain all they want (and do), but none of that will make anything better. My university will not even provide me with a video camera (“we need to cut back”) so I can record a lecture, and meanwhile some of my students are trying to write essays on their mobiles because they cannot afford a computer. I don’t see how student complaints are going to solve any of that.

  2. This is really really good. I have a son in his final year and he is mightily fed up at the lack of support, luckily for the institution he had already done the NSS. Suspect that if he had to go back next year to much of the same then he probably would not have

    Having spent several years telling people that £9250 is not just about teaching but all the other things provided then the sector now faces something of a challenge if it is not providing all those things nor are they providing a great student experience.

    At some point people really need to start thinking bigger picture and decide that September is not going to happen and it would be far better to defer the start of year to January.

  3. Jim’s comment piece highlights so many examples of the double thinking it is so easy to do – and an easy way to expose when this happens it to flip the thinking – the example of ‘yes effort, no not good enough’ flipped to the plea from the student who hasn’t yet quite understood that working really hard won’t necessarily mean getting a good mark.

  4. A really thoughtful piece. Quite rightly recognising, as you so eloquently put it, ‘the (current) game of clarity chicken’ we are stuck in but that at the heart of all this is the impact it will have on the student experience – particularly those first generation students who may have returned to families or communities that already struggle to recognise the value of HE beyond the traditional concept of learning and teaching. Many students just want to know they are being heard and supported, even if there isn’t a clear answer knowing their university and SU are working together to provide this level of clarity soon is paramount to the coming months for all to face these uncertain times.

Leave a Reply