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Getting beyond the tired old student stereotypes

Understanding the truth behind student stereotypes can help us serve students better. Jenny Shaw from Unite Students takes a look at three of the classics.
This article is more than 5 years old

Jenny Shaw is Higher Education External Engagement Director for Unite Students, and is seconded part-time to the Higher Education Mental Health Implementation Taskforce

Stereotypes about students abound in the media, popular culture and even in decision making by those running government and institutions.

It’s important to investigate three student stereotypes, and where they are wrong to instead offer the truth as it is experienced by students themselves. At Unite Students we asked Youthsight to do just that, and t involved 15 applicants and 36 first year students. Our conclusions – which have also been informed by a review of recent literature – are fascinating.

The Careerist

We have all heard that students’ major motivation – and major concern while at university – is their employability. So our first stereotype is The Careerist.

Some students do go to university with a specific career in mind, but they seem to be the minority. More often, the drive for employability is less specific:

If you want a good job you have to go to university, and if you don’t go then you’re reducing your chances of making lots of money” Daniel

We heard a lot about “a good job”, but it wasn’t an end in itself:

I want to live comfortably but not excessively. I’d like to have the security to have nice meals and go on a holiday without breaking the bank.” Maja

Students are seeing university as a route to their security and future happiness. It is about reducing risk and increasing their sense of safety in an uncertain world. The truth seems to be that student crave safety, because they are anxious about the future.

With this in mind, could universities help students to be more resilient to change? How might they explicitly prepare students to carve out their own sense of safety and security, and feel confident in their ability to adapt to future challenges?

The Activist

Applicants come into university with strong beliefs, most want a kinder and fairer world. And many plan on acting out these beliefs at university. So our second stereotype is The Activist.

Activists do exist:

I knew I wanted to join Amnesty before I even started at university.” Katie

However most students don’t get involved in formal activism even though they care about issues. Barriers cited included time, motivation, confidence. But that’s not the end of the story.

Coming to universities forces young people out of their echo chambers, where they come across people who disagree with their views. They are forced to re-evaluate their beliefs, either changing them or more likely broadening them out with different perspectives.

We found that critical thinking was being honed in kitchens, common rooms, coffee shops and pubs. This has always been an aspect of what Nick Hillman calls the boarding school model of higher education, but it’s interesting and perhaps even surprising that this is still happening in an era of mass HE.

The truth is that students bring strong beliefs and values to university, where they develop them further.

Should this learning in non-academic spaces be better recognised as part of the learning experience, perhaps as part of the value that university brings? What is its relevance to the formal curriculum? And, crucially, how can commuter students be given equal access to these opportunities?

The Snowflake

It is widely believed that we have a student mental health crisis. Students seem to need a lot more support than they used to. So our final stereotype is The Snowflake.

We didn’t see any actual snowflakes in our research, but we did identify some key needs:

For personal matters or mental health I would be more comfortable, at first, talking through things with someone I have built trust with.” Jake

Trust seemed to be important. Most university applicants have grown up surrounded by people who know them well and who they trust. When they go to university, one strategy is to try and replicate the personal, emotionally connected trust relationships they were used to.

We saw examples of intense bonding with peers during freshers’ week in order to find support, or reaching back home to family. Occasionally students would find the ongoing trust relationships they needed within university services, but this was not everyone’s experience.

Others felt they should deal with things on their own, like an adult:

I would like to work through my problems with friends and independently rather than relying on parents and support from home.” Mahmood

This was certainly happening among first year students, especially young men who felt like they had to figure it all out for themselves without even reaching out to friends.

Students articulated their truth in the following way: “We are independent, but not adults”. Indeed the adult label was rejected by most, leaving them in a new and not very well defined category between adolescence and adulthood.

So with this in mind, how do students navigate the middle ground between childhood, where you find support from trusted people who know you well, and adulthood, where they perceive you have to handle things on your own?

This presents a real policy opportunity for those working with students. Can trust relationships and continuity of support be built more reliably into services? And how do we convey our own truth to students: that they don’t have to do it all on their own, because adults turn to help when they need it. Indeed, seeking appropriate help and support is an important adult skill.

These are the truths behind the stereotypes, and while they are nuanced they also offer lots of opportunity to meet the needs of this new generation of students.

This is just a taster of the Unite Students 2019 insight programme. In April we are commissioning YouthSight to run a survey to understand these and other findings in greater depth. Over the summer we will be publishing student lifestyle findings and once again we will be launching a formal insight report in September in partnership with HEPI.

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