Rebuilding diverse student communities is at the top of vice chancellors’ post-Covid agenda

University leaders shared their views on post-Covid priorities with the UPP Foundation Student Futures Commission. Commission chair Mary Curnock Cook finds that “belonging” is key

Mary Curnock Cook OBE is chair of the UPP Foundation Student Futures Commission and a former chief executive of UCAS

Ahead of the start of the 2021 term the UPP Foundation Student Futures Commission, which I am privileged to chair, asked vice chancellors for an on-the-record answer to the following question: “As a university leader what is the single most important focus for your institution in helping students to get back on track for success after the disruption of the pandemic?”

And, if they were willing, to contribute anonymously to a second question: “What is most worrying you and your leadership team about getting your university and your students back on track for success after the disruption of the pandemic?”

We received responses from 32 vice chancellors at a range of institutions across the country, each of which offered an insight into what university leaders are prioritising for students’ future success as they move from the “crisis mode” initiated by the pandemic to long term thinking and strategies for recovery.

Sense of belonging is front of mind

The pandemic severed connections between students and their universities, with fewer opportunities to spend time on campus or to take part in the normal activities that make up the student experience.

One thing we’ve heard repeated through the commission is the danger of taking for granted the multitude of ways students draw on the university community for support outside formal structures – chance encounters in corridors after lectures; informal support from friends, from extra curricular activities or study groups; and strong peer networks that help students troubleshoot issues with assignments, reading lists and university structures.

It was this sense of belonging and connection that was particularly difficult to replicate virtually during the pandemic. It was reassuring therefore to see that building cohesive student communities is a leadership priority across the sector.

The real jolt of the pandemic was to the more immersive elements of university – the engagement in extended learning and activities which widened horizons, developed skills and so on. I’ve always felt this is a social justice issue – some students come into HE with those things already in their kitbag of cultural and social capital. The pandemic ripped into this. We have to rebuild it.
Chris Husbands, Sheffield Hallam University

Enabling a strong sense of community where students feel supported and enabled to succeed in terms of both their academic learning, through opportunities to engage with other students both on campus and virtually; and a positive student experience, ensuring the focus on student mental health and wellbeing remains top of the agenda.
Alec Cameron, Aston University

The most important focus is to re-establish a sense of community. While learning has continued via online delivery, our students and staff benefit more from working together face to face in a campus environment conducive to mutual support. The interpersonal dimension is the key priority.
Peter Neil, Bishop Grosseteste University

Every student should get the most out of university

The pandemic has exposed the importance of understanding individual journeys through higher education in a way that years of data gathering and reporting in the sector never quite managed to. Recovery for the sector means putting these individual stories and journeys front and centre, ensuring success for every student.

This new approach to diversity means rethinking how institutions communicate their approach and measure what works when it comes to the student experience. It’s also a vital framing to tackle the “hollowing out” of the campus experience that occurred over the lockdown periods.

Our students have very diverse lives and one size does not fit all; therefore the most important focus for us is ‘listening to our students’ voices’ and co-producing the future of their university experience together
Helen Langton, University of Suffolk

A major concern and focus right now is the sustained work required from our whole university community to reverse the “hollowing out” of campuses over the past year and a half, returning to a full, thriving and safe campus experience, with the student – the customer – always at the centre.
Anonymous

Big worries are mental health and ongoing uncertainty

Student mental health will clearly be an enormous barrier to recovery for the sector. Increased feelings of loneliness and a lack of confidence for students, declining student wellbeing and long waiting times for mental health support are problems which predate the pandemic but have been exacerbated by it. It’s clear a pro-active and more personalised approach to student support will be key to ensuring student success.

It is still too early to know the longer term impact that the pandemic will have on current and future students’ mental health and we will continue to focus on the development of our mental health support services, working in collaboration with relevant agencies and partners across the city.
Anonymous

We are particularly concerned about the long term mental health impacts of the pandemic and the long term impacts of the substantial loss of learning in schools.
Anonymous

And a lack of clarity – on policy, funding, and on future disruptions to teaching – is creating a difficult environment for recovery. With an eye on the resilience of institutions to tackle some of these challenges, it’s clear that senior leaders are worried about how they’ll keep juggling multiple uncertainties.

It is very hard for universities to make the long-term strategic decisions necessary to make the investments in education and research that are central to a high-quality student experience.
Anonymous

The biggest worry for us is something massive that disrupts the return to on campus delivery – be that a further lockdown or academic strike action; our students have been very resilient but this could be the straw that breaks them if this happens.
Anonymous

While no government can predict the future, some of the planning and communication around the pandemic over the past 18 months has been really challenging. The constant change and uncertainty has been hugely difficult for both staff and students to cope with.
Anonymous

Reasons to be cheerful

From the response we received, and the ongoing evidence we’ve collected as part of the commission, it’s clear senior leaders understand the importance of making space for diversity in the student experience and in trying to build something that enables every student to feel a sense of belonging.

Greater consideration of individual student journeys, better ways of monitoring and reporting on student concerns, and a stronger focus on the diversity of the student experience should all be central parts of institutions’ post pandemic recovery strategies. After all, universities are nothing without the students that make them up.

The starting point is to work with students in a positive way, building from the remarkable things they have accomplished over the last two years.
Chris Day, Newcastle University

I am confident that our students will succeed – they are extraordinarily talented and hard-working. It is our responsibility to deliver the education that they expect and ensure that they have the support they need.
Stuart Croft, University of Warwick

The UPP Foundation Student Futures Commission, launched in May 2021, will publish its final report in the new year. Mary Curnock Cook will be speaking at Wonkhe’s Secret Life of Students on Tuesday 15 February 2022. Find out more and book your ticket here.

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