The last year has proven just how agile the higher education sector can be – adapting, adjusting and accommodating for the impacts of Covid-19. The UPP Foundation Student Futures Commission – for which I’m pleased to be a commissioner – will be exploring what universities are thinking about to further support student success, both in the year to come and for the future.
The pandemic has been disorienting, to say the least. In a poll of over 2,000 students conducted via the Group GTI Cybil platform for the Student Futures Commission, 63 per cent said they felt below where they would expect to be academically. More than half said they have not taken part in any extra-curricular activities this year and the majority reported that the pandemic has taken a toll on their ability to make and sustain friendships, concentrate on study and motivate themselves to find a graduate job.
So as we come to the end of a disorienting year, what can be done to re-orient students as universities and students’ unions look ahead to the coming year? The poll findings suggest that action will be needed on multiple fronts to strengthen students’ social connections, academic confidence, and motivation to plan for the future. And it will require plans to be made for all students; those entering university for the first time, and those returning, up to and including postgraduate researchers.
Get it right, and the measures that are put in place now for induction and transition in 2021 could turn out to be among the most effective interventions that support student success in the long term.
At Wonkfest this week I’m looking forward to hearing ideas from universities and students’ unions across the whole sector about plans for the next academic year – I’m sure there’s loads of great thinking and practice out there we can bring together. But for my money, these are the five areas where we all need to be focusing our energies.
Study and research skills for the new normal
We’ve learned so much about what is possible for online learning environments, and now we’ve got to weave the best of online learning throughout the whole student learning experience. There’s huge potential to open up access, and create spaces for less confident students to ask questions, and boost student engagement.
But the new, more blended learning environment will demand different skills from students, and ongoing improvements to our collective understanding of what helps students engage. It’s too easy to assume that students know how to learn or carry out research at the level required, and even easier to assume that because they are comfortable with social media or streaming services they can also make the most of online learning resources, manage the risks of digital fatigue or isolation, or know how to communicate effectively online in an academic context.
So, in 2021, as universities think through the changed learning environment, let’s be sure to map the learning and research skills students need into the early stages of courses, modules and programmes, and ensure they are supported to develop them as an integral part of their course.
Assessment, attainment and academic integrity
There’s no point in complaining that students only think about assessments – when you’re short of time, juggling multiple deadlines, and everything feels very high stakes, is it surprising that students want to make sure they are able to perform at their best?
During the pandemic we’ve seen much-needed fresh thinking applied to assessment, eroding the dominance of the exam format in favour of a more diverse portfolio of options. That’s great for students who have more varied opportunities to demonstrate their learning, and – I have to assume – it’s a lot more interesting for lecturers as well.
Going forward, I’d love to see this innovation in assessment flourish further. Not least because the online environment offers worrying new opportunities for predatory essay mill and similar services to find new ways to “help” students with assessment, and the more varied the assessment, the harder it is to cheat the system. But, even more importantly, because testing students’ knowledge and creativity in more interesting and engaging ways could help make real progress on narrowing existing awarding gaps.
“No detriment” policies have helped ensure that students who have been affected by the pandemic have not had their earlier performance dragged down by a poor showing in subsequent assessments.
But the principle of “no detriment” could apply post-pandemic as well. So much time and effort is spent on making students who have suffered illness, family crisis, or other life upheaval demonstrate their trauma for the benefit of exam boards. What if the default on assessment was that students frequently have complex lives, and if they are unable to complete one assessment, they should be given the opportunity to demonstrate the learning at a later date or in a different way?
Student professional development
There’s been some excellent innovation with online and remote placements – and of course some students have been able to continue on placement, albeit in very different conditions from normal. But many students have missed out – and we know that experiencing a placement can play a really important role in students’ academic achievement and future employment.
Even if technically students have met their promised learning outcomes, they will have missed out on building networks, taking part in “real life” projects and getting to grips with the expectations of the professional environments they hope to join post-graduation.
I’d love to say every student should be given an opportunity to re-take placements, and universities should certainly do their best to make that a reality for the students who want it. But if that’s not realistic, then real thought needs to be given to how students can be offered additional exposure to professional environments to address the placement skills gap.
At the same time, students’ unions need to be thinking about how, with the support of our universities, we can widen access to the extra-curricular offer to re-establish a thriving student community and support students’ development.
Some of this might be about creating a more blended offer so that students can more easily engage from where they are. It might be about breaking down financial or cultural barriers that makes some students feel excluded from the opportunities available. Or it might be about inclusion and addressing specific access needs.
We should expect a huge spike in engagement and participation in extra-curriculars early next year – so let’s use the opportunity to increase participation and inclusion for the long term.
Health, wellbeing and community connections
There’s no sugar-coating it, the pandemic has been tough on student wellbeing – as the results of the student poll show. But the scale of the impact on mental health that the pandemic has brought also brings the opportunity to think about how to maximise the impact of various contributors to student wellbeing from the point of arrival, or in advance, rather than waiting for students to be in crisis before they are able to access services.
This could include support for developing friendships and social connections, active development of a culture of care and kindness on campus, and the right support from personal tutors to navigate the academic environment, as well as effective signposting to student services for help with specific issues.
Dislocation and isolation are terrible for wellbeing and mental health (not to mention learning) – but even before the pandemic some students were reporting that they were lonely at university.
One known contributor to wellbeing is the opportunity to give something back to your community. As universities’ local communities are also struggling to recover from the pandemic, there could be opportunities to extend the idea of enhanced wellbeing beyond campus, deepening connections with local communities and giving students a wider range of potential networks and contacts.
Student voice and students’ unions
I’m speaking from a position of some authority when I say that student voice has been more necessary than ever during this pandemic. It has been so important that as student representatives we have been listening to students, reflecting their views back to our universities and then working in partnership to address the issues raised.
But it should not be forgotten that students’ unions have also had a really challenging time during Covid-19 – many have seen budgets cut, and loss of revenue from commercial activity.
If universities are going to take that holistic approach to student re-orientation that the evidence suggests is necessary, supporting, working with and investing in the students’ union will be a fundamental piece of the puzzle.
We’ve lost a lot in the past year – but we’ve learned a lot, too. Rather than mourning what’s lost, we can build on the learning to build back higher for all students – starting right now.