Sunday Blake is associate editor at Wonkhe

When a student does or doesn’t engage – and when the sector says “engage”, it often means “attend” – there are lots of hypothetical reasons why. It might be about the cost of transport, or feelings of belonging, or having to undertake paid work, or being tired.

Survey data tells us something about what is going on – but for any individual student it’s a complex interplay of multiple factors at work for any given decision.

To understand a bit more about what is driving students’ decision-making, I interviewed nine students in depth about their approach to managing studying alongside their other commitments. We approached the students who had taken part in our study with Pearson on the interaction between cost of living and belonging – and who had indicated they were open to being approached to take part in further research on the topic.

With these students I explored key decisions – like whether to attend scheduled teaching or go to work – and the smaller decisions, like whether to stay on campus to study after a lecture or hang around to attend a drop-in free event. I was particularly interested in how these decisions impacted their identities as a student, their sense of belonging to the institution, and their feelings about their future.

The decisions students were making impacted their attendance at scheduled teaching, student societies and student-led events, and engagement with learning spaces on campus. But while surveys and reports on the impact of the cost of living on students have indicated that students are missing scheduled teaching and extracurricular activities to take on paid work, these interviews suggest that paid work offers only a surface explanation for their level of engagement.

Students’ decisions on whether to engage in different areas of university life were often impacted by how they viewed the purpose of higher education – and how they believed an “ideal student” should act. For the students I spoke to, their perception of the “right” way to behave as a student seemed to be impacted by their class background, parental expectations, and whether or not they were confident in their ability to achieve positive graduate outcomes.

In their “ideal student” project, Billy Wong and Tiffany Chiu seek to encourage the making explicit of expectations of students in hopes of combating the ways that “implicit and occluded expectations of students” bake disadvantage into higher education environments – because those that know how to play the game are more likely to succeed.

My interviews suggest that the cost of living crisis is exacerbating this gap further, by reducing the opportunities for the kinds of casual or structured encounters with peers that might help students to come to understand how the game is played.

Food for thought

The students who had reported that they were struggling to meet their basic living costs described, for example, the additional burden they carry through their day. Sometimes that was managed through of bio-hacks:

You can suppress your appetite with a cheap energy drink. They are like 29p in some shops, and the caffeine will give me the energy to get through the university day and still work my shift in the evening.

Sometimes it involved exerting mental energy on managing finances:

I’m constantly calculating how much things cost. Every day, every purchase, whether I walk or get the bus, whether I buy milk or make mine last at home. It’s stressful. It’s just mentally draining to go to the shop and have to pick everything up, think about things and add things up. Yeah, it’s exhausting. Exhausting.

The cost of food clearly impacts attendance on campus. While some struggling students studied in the library as much as possible to save on utility bills because “[t]he library has heating and lights and everything on,” others explained that they could not afford to go to the library – because they did not have the funds to sustain a day of studying there:

Today, I would prefer to go to uni because I get more work done at uni. But I can’t afford lunch there and I haven’t got the ingredients at home to make a lunch to take. So, I just stay home because, like, I can’t afford to really like to take food, like, you know, to go in.

On-campus working space was seen by participants as somewhere dedicated to focus, and some expressed deep frustration at not being able to afford a study day on campus:

I get most of [of my work] done when I’m at uni. I love to go in early in the morning and like, spend a whole day at the library, and I would get so much done […] but at the moment, I don’t have food in the house that I can take with me to the library. Nothing I can make a sandwich [with] or something.

So, I can’t go to the library today because I can’t afford to pay for, like, the meal deals that they have there and stuff. The library is meant to be free, but it’s not free because when you’re there, you have to pay for stuff. But that’s where I do the most work, and I’ll be so focused whereas, like, when I’m here at home, I can’t get anything done.

Exclusion from shared working spaces impacts students’ ability to be part of their learning community. A middle class student described how they would go to the library every day because:

As well as a space to read, I get to see my friends, or maybe work on projects together. Weirdly, a lot of socialising is in the library because of the convenience and the way the space is for students.

Will this do?

But as well as the practicalities of costs, in the conversations decisions about whether to come on to campus – and feelings about non-attendance – were derived from students’ social background and cultural norms as well as practical considerations.

For example, a student from a middle class background described a tactical approach to decision-making about attending class:

Well, the way I do it is, I look at it and be like, how many have I missed already? And how important is the lecture?

The international students I interviewed had a clear sense of a link between a missed class and the impact on their educational experience, their skills development, and ultimately, their career prospects. They felt that their financial circumstances obliged them to, as one put it, “sacrific[e] your future skills a little bit for the here and now.” One said:

I have a passion for learning. Missing one lecture for some hours of work isn’t morally pleasing to me. Every single lecture or seminar I miss will impact my studies. Even if you’re self-learning everything, there are certain points or certain things that are taught in the lectures, and that’s why the lectures are there for a reason.

Another said:

In the end, it is like a circular impact on the final result of me landing a graduate job as the cost of living made me focus more on getting the funds rather than my experience at university. If you work at a restaurant, right, that’s not degree-relevant experience that you can use to get a graduate job.

Attendance at student-led activities

The students who could take part in student-led events and activities reported the value it brought to them:

I am the wellbeing officer in the psychology society. I like being involved in it; it makes me feel like part of a group, and it really, like, boosted my confidence. I really enjoyed it.

There is clearly a practical affordability aspect to being able to take part in campus activities that carry a cost. But students who were struggling to make ends meet reported that the upfront cost of participating in events and socials run by the students’ union or student societies could be off-putting:

There were bi-weekly volleyball sessions, and I was on the team, but I stopped going. It’s on the far side of the university—which is very far—so it doesn’t make sense to pay for the bus and come back.

The practice of offering free or cheaper “give it a go” sessions could in some cases only emphasise what students were missing if they could not afford to continue to participate:

The give-it-a-go session was free, but the team had like a £200 participation fee and you have to renew it every year, so I didn’t do it. But I would have. I love it and would shine in it.

The students’ union society events] are like “oh, come do this for like this much money,” and then when you enjoy it, and you want to come back, they charge you four times the amount… Okay.

Students who didn’t take part in activities reported that sense of exclusion had a knock-on impact on their sense of belonging. and their identity as a student:

It’s difficult because, like, I never, I never feel like I’ve truly had the proper uni experience.

I did feel excluded during my first year and like, like from a social life because I can’t just go out randomly, I can’t participate.

So, I tried to be in a society once or twice, but it didn’t really work out. The timing didn’t work out for me, with my other job and all. I needed to earn so I had to leave the group. I certainly feel disappointed and sad about it.

What really matters

Exploring students’ rationale for choosing to take part in campus activities, it was clear that there are deeper drivers at play – ones that are related to perceptions of the value of each aspect of the university experience.

One student articulated how important it was to them to be exposed to peers who were different – and explicitly drew a distinction between their social experience and their classroom experience:

My hometown is not very diverse. But I sit in [the campus coffee shop] for the social with five friends of five nationalities and all different backgrounds. You don’t get that online. None of that is happening in the classroom, is it?

A first-generation student – one struggling to make their basic living costs – touched on the experience of meeting peers from different backgrounds:

I joined a shooting club. I had never done it before, but I went to shoot, and I was really good at it. But that group of people is exactly who you think they are. They wear tweed to the pub unironically. And they’re all like sons of Lords and stuff. No one I would normally meet. I loved shooting, but that was a cool part, too.

But when pushed on whether this was seen as an opportunity to build networks and connections, they were quick to return their focus to the educative value of university:

What? No. That is not what I was thinking about. I’m thinking about opportunities from the course and what contacts I can get from the university. It’s really about the education, isn’t it? How that helps you. Not the societies.

Another student I spoke to – from a middle-class background – characterised their attendance at extra-curricular activities as being about personal development and standing out in the job market:

I do make sure I have time to go to my society. I think, right, every other student is here completing their work. If I stayed and did my work – I’m not saying it’s not important – but what do I have to say for myself when I am in an interview next year? “Oh here’s my degree that a hundred other people have.” You know

But when a student from a low socio-economic background who was struggling to meet basic living costs was involved in a society, it was evident that they were prioritising the direct experience associated with the role, rather than the social opportunities:

I’m just a secretary for the LGBT society. It’s quite taxing. That’s quite a lot of hours per week. I don’t always go [to the socials], and I usually will make reasons why I can’t attend. The work as a secretary is important, though. It’s good experience.

Some students who were excluded seemed to console themselves that that missing out on inclusion was a net positive, as it meant they were able to achieve more academically:

I just focus on studying right now because I have nothing better to do, I guess. It’s like I don’t really participate in the student activities. But at least I’m able to get some work done.

Planning for the pay-off

When we asked students who were part of the study with Pearson whether they thought university was still the right choice for them, three in four of those who had indicated they were struggling to meet basic costs said “yes”.

When we asked them to explain their choice, the major themes identified related to the prospect of a good graduate job – as well as the intrinsic value of a university education and experience.

Exploring these themes further with the students I interviewed, differences surfaced between “traditional” students – who would sometimes question whether their degree is value for money – and non-traditional students, who felt an existential panic about it not counting towards something.

One first-generation student from a working-class background explained the calculation:

In the future, I will have a nice house, and I can have a job. And I’m not in this situation basically. Like it’s not a permanent thing forever.

The downside was that some students felt immense pressure and anxiety to ensure the degree was “worth it”. A first-generation student from an old mining town said:

Where I’m from, people don’t leave the town full stop. Like, most people don’t go into further education, and then obviously, even fewer people use that further education to go into higher education. So it was always kind of a, you know, ‘no one in your town gets this opportunity, so don’t fuck it up.’ So that was the pressure I felt more than anything else.

The form that pressure takes can be actively discouraging, as one first-generation student explained:

If don’t get a graduate relevant job then – like, yeah. The point is that people with degrees are supposed to be paid more over a longer period of time, over the long term, we are better off, but we’re only better off if it works. I already get mocked at home for not having the earning potential of my friends who got jobs from school and have trained up.

Another said:

I basically had to negotiate my own degree that only I’m doing it because everyone else had a say in it. You have to justify the debt, especially to my parents, who weren’t sure. So I have to do well, or you go home, and everyone has been proven right.

Getting there in the end

In the folklore version of higher education, there is a tendency to assume that students will initially struggle with all sorts of challenges such handling money, managing their own time, and balancing academic and wider social and extracurricular commitments – but that these challenges can be overcome with a help from a personal tutor, a student support department, or the friends in their hall of residence.

But the contemporary reality for students struggling to make ends meet is that taking part in on-campus activities or even making use of campus facilities can simply be too expensive to contemplate – and so the opportunities that these kinds of engagement opportunities offer for connection and development are unevenly distributed.

For less advantaged students, staying on track academically carries a much larger physical and mental burden – and they are less able to relieve that burden through social activity and peer relationships.

When something has to give, students are making decisions based not just on finance, but on their perceptions of what is most important about their university experience. As students attempt to fit the pieces of student experience together, the things they choose to engage with are often rational responses based on their own attitudes, cultural preconceptions, and prior experiences.

My interviews suggest that for students who are less advantaged, the stakes of making a success out of their university experience can be very high. If their understanding is that the most important thing is to “knuckle down” and focus on studying, when faced with the additional costs involved in wider campus life – or even just the costs of coming to campus at all – they still prioritise their academic study as best they can, just not in a way that can easily be seen. For students, these are difficult choices – ones that have the potential to widen inequalities between them and their peers both during and after university life.

3 responses to “Reduced student engagement isn’t just about prioritising part-time employment

  1. The mental health issues that the last 4 years have spawned are a huge part of the disconnection in our experience, with many times more arriving with documented, usually self diagnosed/declared, mental health issues. One student I’m aware of had 2 physical disability issues and 14 mental health issues, including a propensity to panic attacks when the fire alarm bells were tested at the advertised time weekly, their PEEP ran to 60+ pages! Then they didn’t turn up at the start of semester having taken a different course at a Uni closer to home. The time/effort cost to Universities is huge.

  2. Really harrowing reading. I read this as I sit writing a report about how to deal with falling engagement among undergraduate students for my department – having been met with some skepticism about the impact of the cost of living crisis.

  3. Sobering stuff, Sunday, and the really depressing part is that in the end, it always comes back to money. I’m struggling to think of ways to improve things, and it’s hard. But surely more can be done to encourage the private sector to offer meaningful and financially rewarding work experience to students during their holidays? Perhaps one could combine a requirement to pay a minimum wage to student interns (rather than just travel and subsistence) with tax breaks for businesses that offer such experience? Or even make it mandatory to offer a minimum number of properly paid internships per year, calculated by reference to a businesses’ average annual headcount. Perhaps include it in companies’ ESG obligations? It would alleviate the financial stress that many students suffer and would also improve their CVs for life after university. Of course, I’m no expert, and it’s possible these things have already been considered and rejected, but I’d be interested to know why if that were the case. The only positive that I can take from the current situation is that a generation of graduates is being forced to learn about financial precarity and astuteness, and that may produce a more compassionate and empathetic breed of politicians and policy makers in the future.

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