Opening universities’ doors wide enough to let students’ lives in

The traumas and challenges students bring with them to higher education need to inform how they are supported in transition, finds Jenny Shaw

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

Every now and then you hear something that sticks in your mind for decades.

It was the mid noughties and we were on a breezy, furzy moor near Gothland, taking a quick break on tour of Open University rural learning centres. Jane, an experienced outreach worker, was trying to sum up the challenges her learners faced:

We’ve made the doors of universities wide enough to let wheelchairs through, but we’ve not made them wide enough to let students’ lives in.

Working on the report Improving the Transition to Higher Education, which I co-wrote with higher education student support champion Edward Peck and which is published today, brought these words back. It was an unfamiliar framing of the issue and, for its time, faintly revolutionary. And yet I experienced a shock of recognition. Her students were grappling with rural poverty, childcare issues, poor transport links and domestic abuse.

For many in my northern town, twenty years earlier still, it had been teen pregnancy, grooming, drugs and alcohol, overdoses and domestic abuse. These things – more shocking in hindsight – were at the time seemingly taken for granted, alongside the knowledge that none of these kids were going to university because that’s just how it was.

Today, with an 18-year-old participation rate of 36 per cent and a far more diverse student population, some of “these kids” are going to university. Having worked on both the Aimhigher and the Lifelong Learning Networks programmes, it’s wonderful to see the progress that has been made on widening access, and yet we knew back then that the job wasn’t done until we had also widened participation and engagement; in other words we had to make the doors wide enough that students didn’t feel the need to leave part of themselves outside.

Context matters

Improving the Transition to Higher Education takes a broad and systemic view of student support in the transition to university, generating recommendations for schools, colleges and especially for higher education providers. It articulates a wide range of issues and generates recommendations, some of which are already being taken forward, including new work on data sharing through the office of the Higher Education Student Support Champion.

However, it is the student case studies that are the heart of the report and the real challenge to us all. These are anonymised accounts of real students which tell stories of explicit or implicit trauma. In a few short paragraphs we read about abuse and experience of violence, hints of family estrangement or bereavement and implied fear of (further?) racial profiling. These stories capture a glimpse of the complexity of students’ lives, how this affects their transition to university and, crucially, provides important context around what they need to be successful students.

It is this individualised, contextual information that is so difficult to manage through large scale systems alone. There isn’t a tick box for a lifetime of experiencing racism, or for being the child of alcoholics, or any of the other factors that may contribute to trauma and poor mental health. The mental health conditions and other challenges that may arise, and the students’ needs, will be intrinsically linked to these experiences and schools have expressed frustration that there are rarely opportunities to share this information even with the student’s consent. As a result, the higher education institution may only hear about the diagnosis itself.

Collaborate to cope with scale

There is of course a challenge of scale. We have a massified higher education sector and it can be challenging for larger institutions to respond to such individualised information. And yet schools, colleges and universities are all wrestling with the same student support challenges that have been further exacerbated by the Covid-19 pandemic: higher incidence of mental health conditions, social anxiety, loneliness and high levels of missed education. The roundtable events that informed the report clearly showed the benefit of even a brief cross-sector dialogue on this issue.

The report itself suggests a range of measures that can be adopted locally, regionally or even nationally: learning from one another, aligning on terminology, sharing insight. There are also recommendations on sharing information in the right way and at the right time in the application process, recommendations that are being taken forward by the HE Student Support Champion. This could provide a more contextual and accurate picture of students’ requirements without the risk of re-traumatising.

Some higher education institutions have taken the initiative to understand more about their students’ lives. A recent Wonkhe article by Tony Moss and Deborah Johnson described their successful Personal Development Plan initiative at London South Bank University. This goes way beyond data collection, empowering students to manage their own development and enabling the institution to respond appropriately to their needs.

Students, not problems

However, when considering some of these challenges it is all too easy to slide into the trap of seeing students as problems to be fixed, especially students with minoritised identities. This is a pitfall I have seen before in widening access circles, when the lived experiences of the staff were very different from those of prospective or current students. A lack of understanding can lead to some aspects of students’ experience being inappropriately minimised and others pathologised. To give a hypothetical example, the impact of experiencing micro-aggressions on campus is dismissed, but coming from a community where there has been knife crime leads to assumptions and stereotyping about the student’s involvement and risk to others.

There have been some innovative OfS funded projects that demonstrate the benefits of inclusion and cultural competence in student support. In addition to the impact of new or improved services, the co-creation approach was beneficial for students who were able to feel seen and understood, and staff who broadened their insight and understanding. It is important that this work continues, not only in service delivery but also in service design and strategic decision making.

Some who have contributed to this report are, like me, from what is euphemistically known as “non-traditional backgrounds” and some have worked in and among marginalised communities. Their insights, perspectives and understanding of students have been essential to the analysis and framing of the challenges and recommendations: how alienating student life can feel at first, the significance of trauma and the risk of re-traumatisation, the confusion caused by unfamiliar terminology. Together with the case studies they remind us that, alongside the structural work on data sharing and cross-sector collaboration, there is also potential for thousands of small but effective changes born of deeper understanding of students’ lives.

Improving the Transition to Higher Education was co-produced by the Office of the Higher Education Student Support Champion and Unite Students.

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