Let’s go fly a kite: Students

Ambitious about wellbeing

Rosie Tressler, CEO, Student Minds

What if universities revised the student outcomes they are aiming for – to be healthy, confident and have improved wellbeing? The University of Sydney has led the way by choosing nine holistic graduate qualities that look far beyond salary benchmarking. If the overall goal were to improve wellbeing, it would filter into curriculum planning, tutor systems and more. Universities with wellbeing as a key outcome would abolish graded brackets in assessments and give students a percentage rather than slotting them into a first or 2:1 and so on, removing unnecessary pressure. Better support would be provided for academics to consider how assessment design influences student mental wellbeing. We’d all ask questions about what we really ought to be measuring.

What if all universities committed to flexible working hours for staff? What if the HE sector became the one to take a stand against the idea that 60-hour working weeks are okay? All universities could facilitate and encourage flexible working hours and working from home. And this should include PhD students who work in and for universities, without the same HR support systems and rights. We could be taking inspiration from the likes of Google, giving employees 20% of their time towards creativity or the viability of the four-day working week. Reviewing personal tutor workload allocation models would mean we’d better capture the time and emotional labour that goes into supporting students. Then we’d start to develop thriving communities.

Accommodating students

Ben Vulliamy, CEO, York University Students’ Union

When it comes to student housing, the sector has shown a comprehensive lack of responsibility to self-regulate. Universities instead have chosen to use student housing as a way of adding to fee income. Student loan debt and government funding are now lining the pockets of universities and private investors (which provided 87% of new bed spaces in 2017-18). So now is the time for a radical supply-side intervention on one of the worst offenders for value for money.

New legislation should be established requiring universities to provide, or to actively intervene in the private market, to ensure a more affordable accommodation market with better value for money. Universities would only be allowed to offer a place to a student if they could guarantee that there was somewhere affordable to live. Overseen by the OfS, they could be required to make an action plan for one or more of the following;

  • A minimum of 50% of student housing stock is maintained and offered at no more than 60% of the maximum student loan. This is comparable to the cost in 2012, or
  • The university must produce an action plan annually demonstrating how it is actively engaging with the private market to ensure the market conditions are sustainable, affordable and high quality. This should include, as a minimum, evidence of how to improve transparency, quality and affordability. It should also outline how the university engages with any private provider contracts to give affordability guarantees.

In the event of non-compliance, the OfS should hold power to claw back up to 15% of the fees for all students registered at that institution. The OfS would use the 15% fee deduction to invest in housing cooperatives (through and with students unions) in those cities and towns which lack affordable student housing. The principle is that where both public and private funding is failing to deliver affordable housing, an alternative approach of cooperative should be piloted.

Time for travel grants

David Malcolm, Head of Policy, National Union of Students

One of the more interesting aspects of the terms of reference for the review of post-18 education and funding was the inclusion of “commuter study” as a form of flexible study to be encouraged. There has been an increasing interest in the experience of commuter students, most recently the HEPI report Homeward Bound, and broad agreement more needs to be done to support them.

In successive reports, commuter students identify the cost of travel as an issue, and poorer students, in general, cite travel as a key financial pressure. Yet it wasn’t always thus: student travel over a certain threshold used to be reimbursed as part of the student finance system, both that between the student’s residence and the place of study and, if the student moved away, three return trips to the family home per annum. However, such grants were scrapped in 1984 in England and Wales and 2011 in Scotland, other than for certain forms of placement.

We know that some commuter students are travelling significant distances and therefore travel costs vary wildly. As such the burden of those costs fall unevenly, especially as commuter students are more likely to come from lower socio-economic groups and BME backgrounds. Therefore, there is a strong case to reinstate travel grants, accompanied by a mandatory student discount on rail and bus travel. This would be a targeted mechanism that would remove a key concern of commuter students, supporting that study option, and, also, support those poorer students who want or need to move away from home to study and where the costs involved which might deter them or cause financial strain.

This change on its own would not address all the barriers to commuter students or the financial problems facing students – but it could make a real difference.

Helping students to change the world

Jenny Shaw, Student Experience Director, Unite Students

In preparation for a recent Jisc horizon scanning working group, participants were asked to come up with some predictions for the future of student mental health. I found myself writing: “Young people’s activism is going to rise globally and could have positive impacts on student mental health. How can universities support those who want to change the world?”

We don’t have to look very far to see passionate young people who want to make a difference. Whether campaigning about social justice, climate change, gun laws or animal welfare, this rising generation is globally connected and digitally savvy, and they are not content with the world they have inherited.

Many universities already support student activism either directly or through their students’ union. Imagine this dialled up to eleven: where all programmes of study embed learning opportunities around creating effective change, teach TED Talk-style presentation skills, include basic civics. Students could learn the real nuts and bolts skills for effective public speaking, blogging, video production and campaign management whatever their subject major.

Supporting student activism is a smart thing to do on a number of levels. It would undoubtedly have a positive impact on students’ mental health: doing good for others, forming social connections and a sense of agency have all been shown to contribute to wellbeing and can aid recovery from even the most serious conditions.

Students with these skills will also be in demand in the modern workplace. Hiring managers always have empathy and effective communication high on their list. And we might just help to change the world for the better.

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