Steph Lomas is VP Education at UCLan SU 

Right now students are having to rethink or “reality check” their ideas on what “success” in the graduate world will look like.

Even in the before times, students often had to alter their expectations of “success” from that which they held coming into university, to something more realistic when they left.

When I signed up to university and surveyed the career possibilities as a result of degree completion, I had visions of grandeur that my law degree would have me leading a Magic Circle law firm by the age of 30.

I turn 30 this year, and I’m yet to receive that Managing Partner call from Linklaters. But in my first year I was given a real reality check when it came to the chances of even accessing these careers – and decided that maybe the magic circle wasn’t for me.

Throughout my time at university, my goals were re-evaluated as a result of the experiences I had, but nevertheless education truly transformed my life.

Students enter higher education at differing levels and for different reasons. As a students’ union education officer at UCLan, I like to think all students come to challenge themselves academically, but some come for the social capital, the chance to be independent and to reinvent themselves – and others come but have yet to really discover their why.

Right now, many in the sector are arguing that students are not entitled to refunds or compensation because their degree’s learning objectives are being met online. That may be technically true – but we shouldn’t lose sight of the ways in which students judge the success of a university education, and even for those whose time is running out, we should do all we can to make sure their goals are met.

I think I have found five ways that students use to measure the success of their time at university that they in turn measure their university’s effectiveness.

#5 – Being able to give back.

Having an impact on society outside of a chosen career is something that students have held for years as an aspiration, but we often fail to recognise it as a measurement of university success.

Many students came to university to make a difference – they wanted to be the scientists finding the cure for cancer, the lawyer holding the state accountable for human rights, an artist helping youth groups channel anger in a creative outlet or a businessperson wanting to create an environmentally friendly enterprise.

All the research tells us that they are generation of change makers, ambitious about their own lives and about the impact they could have on others – and for education to be transformative not only to students and the communities around us, they need to have the opportunities to make change.

At their best, universities and SUs use their connections to provide opportunities to get started on that change making – and learn soft skills, practice elements of theory from their studies, gain connections and give back to the community in the process.

Ethical education is important – not only as a springboard for graduates to continue giving back and for universities to work with their local communities, but is needed for society to change in a progressive way.

Much of that evaporated when the lockdown came. It’s never too late to make sure it returns.

#4 – Academic knowledge and accomplishment

As a VP Education, I would be impeached if I didn’t argue that this is a measurement of success. Students measure it on what they learn and how well they do academically. People who say they don’t care about grades are almost always lying to you.

The “click” of understanding the practical and theoretical base of their degree is the catalyst of many decisions students make about their future – whether they stay on the course, whether they work in a sector, how well they are prepared for work and whether their path represents who they are (questions which may feature later in our chart countdown).

A fantastic teaching and learning experience equips students with the foundation to build their future on. For students, they need to use and engage with the resources they have access to and be open with their feedback so that they can access everything they need in terms of academic knowledge and academic support.

But access – to teachers, resources and each other – has been hugely restricted all year. It’s never too late to find ways to boost it.

#3 – Careers and professionalism

The big measurement of success for many graduates is their future career. No one wants to go to their 30-year school reunion to be embarrassed about what they do – Hollywood films have scared us to death with those cringeworthy scenarios!

Graduates want to be in an environment where they can feel a sense of pride and reassurance that those years of midnight deadlines, 9am lectures and in many cases juggling financial hardship were worth it.

But they need the tools to access those roles – grades are great but without the careers cunning, all that potential could go down the drain. Universities and employers talk all the time about the importance of commercial awareness, but universities need to upskill students on how to become commercially aware. We tell students how important it is to know how to network, but universities need to provide safe environments for students to practice it. We tell students how important it is to get experience and we know that we have an issue with the cycle of placements “where businesses require experience but students can get experience because everywhere requires experience” – but how are universities creating opportunities with industry that break that cycle?

A lot of this got ten times harder when lockdown kicked in, and got even worse when the recession killed off the capacity to engage inside employers even without restrictions. The government, working with universities, needs a proper plan here – fast.

#2 – Emotional Resilience

When students look back at their time in university, we want them to do so with a smile and say “those were the days”. What we don’t want is for them to continue that phrase with “where I started to become mentally unwell”.

Whilst this is a measurement of success from their present – it has a huge influence on their success in the future. So institutions need to embed self-care and emotional intelligence into their education. We need to emphasise that not only is it important to engage with studies, it is important to engage with wellbeing.

It is crucial that staff are discussing the importance of deadlines but also the importance of practicing self-care and signposting to well invested in support. Universities also need to go a little further than just talking – we need to ensure that students are not over assessed or have crisis periods where 5 deadlines are within a week.

Students don’t sign up for trauma but for transformation.

By embedding self-care into the daily discussions, ensuring wellbeing is invested in, accessing support isn’t taboo and protecting students mental health in assessments – we allow students to leave university understanding that importance of working to deadlines, dealing with pressure but feeling empowered to manage their mental health in the knowledge that it is crucial to their success.

At the core of the discussions over “no detriment” policies there’s a debate about what assessment is for, and especially in the “elite” end of the sector there seems to be some residual idea that we should be assessing students on their ability to cope with a global pandemic. Can we drop that now, please?

#1 – Confidence

According to Confucius:

Education breeds confidence. Confidence breeds hope. Hope breeds peace.”

When I entered university, my confidence level was through the floor – I was a returning student who hadn’t written an essay since GCSEs and had a very poor experience previously in education – I’d been told that I was never going to amount to anything.

When I left my student days behind me at the University of Central Lancashire, I was a transformed person. Not the most confident by any stretch of the imagination, but I knew that whatever was put in front of me, I had the skills to work through it.

Part of that assured nature came through my grades building me up year upon year, part of it came from my voluntary experience, but a lot of that renewed confidence came through the comments and discussions that I had with staff within the university.

This year graduates will emerge into an unknown world, and the experience of university for the past year and a half will have made them question everything. Students union officers can tell students how fantastic they are – but we are not the people they need to hear it from. They need to hear it from the staff who have taught them throughout.

A simple congratulations on a well written assignment, a compliment around an interesting discussion point that they raised in a seminar, how well they did during a presentation – it all builds confidence. But it’s also about ensuring that the physical and digital environment provides confidence – and in this pandemic, it’s never too late to look at our universities and question whether they are truly accessible and promote confidence in every single student.

Universities should encourage their staff to build up students within the conversations that they have, and to ensure that students have easy access to what they need. It only takes a disabled student a single visit to a library where they must go through a side exit with their wheelchair to believe that they are not important to a university. It only takes one look at a reading list for a black student to see that they are not represented within their curriculum and therefore not important to their university. It only takes 1 refusal to alter a timetable for a student parent to think that they are not important to the university. Universities should again work with SUs to ensure accessibility, representation and liberation to create student confidence.

If universities want students to be successful, at a minimum we must ensure that these five areas are addressed before we even consider ushering students out of the door into the “real” world. Students are our ambassadors for everything our sector is and stands for – and with the time that’s left, we should do everything we can to set them up to flourish and not fail.

6 responses to “Even in the pits of the pandemic, students still yearn for success

  1. Great article Steph! I agree confidence is key and that graduate employment settings will have to do a lot to support recent grads with building confidence again – as well as the other skills you mentioned. And yes, HE is only as good as the people within it!

  2. This is a really useful and pertinent piece. We will need to embed strategies to enable our students to succeed in our modules over the next few years, even if this means pruning some learning outcomes.

  3. Well done Steph. I’ve heard you speak before. You have insight and thoughtfulness (you’d be wasted on a Magic Circle law firm). The question of what is success is important and needs to be developed. Using 5 points gets the ideas across. And the university sector needs to not just turn to students for the occasional comment or article but actually work with them as a team. I speak as an academic.

Leave a Reply