Student Futures Commission: students’ hopes beyond Covid-19

Student Futures Commission chair Mary Curnock Cook explores the findings from a new poll of students on their experiences of Covid-19 and hopes for the future.

Mary Curnock Cook OBE is Chair of the UPP Foundation Student Futures Commission and a former Chief Executive of UCAS

The UPP Foundation Student Futures Commission aims to bring together the best of the sector’s thinking on how we can support student success as we emerge from the Covid-19 pandemic.

Later today at our launch event we’ll kick off the conversation and publish our call for evidence. In keeping with our plans to ensure students’ experiences and voices are shaping our work at every stage, today we’re also headlining the results of a poll of over 2,000 students reflecting on their past year, thinking about the future university experience they want and need and hopes for after graduation. We’ll be publishing a fuller analysis in the coming weeks.

Flexi future

Though large numbers of students have been on campus this past year, the experience they had was by no means a normal one. And the overriding priority for students returning in September is the resumption of face-to-face teaching, with 59 per cent citing that as what they were most looking forward to for the autumn.

Yet at the same time, the students we polled welcomed many aspects of the pivot to online learning, and indeed, want to keep elements of a blended curriculum. Much like many adults in the workforce, what students are telling us is that they want to embrace a flexible model – but built around face to face interaction for teaching and for wider socialising and student experience.

This has huge implications for the sector. As we look ahead, universities will want to ensure that we can build upon lots of the successful innovations in online learning that have accelerated over the past twelve months. There will be important lessons to learn as the sector reflects on what the university of the future looks like, and how to balance the benefits that technology can bring with the desire for personal relationships with staff and peers that students are craving.

Disconnecting and re-connecting

If the sector is going to move forward positively and avoid undermining the extraordinary resilience demonstrated by students this year we should not frame our thinking around loss. But just as the government is considering extending the school day to help counteract the academic and social capital gap that has emerged due to school closures, findings from our polling demonstrate that this was felt in university as well: 63 per cent of students felt like they were behind where they expected to be at this point in the academic year. And so while the sector is understandably being careful to avoid causing unnecessary anxiety for students it is important that discussions about how to ensure that any loss is swiftly identified and recovered.

On a more positive note, and in stark contrast to what young people think about how their GCSEs and A levels have been handled, we also found that 72 per cent of university students were satisfied with, or neutral about, the way in which their university had managed assessments during the closure of most in-person teaching.

But of course, for many, university is more than just about studying, but is also a time to move away from home for the first time, make friends and try out new experiences, all of which the pandemic and the move to a virtual world have made challenging. Nearly a quarter of students said that the pandemic has had a very negative impact on their mental health, with female students feeling this more severely.

We found that over half of all students said that they haven’t participated in any extra- curricular activities, face to face or virtual, over the last year, and for those that did digital fatigue was a major barrier to getting more involved. And the loss of connections, and social learning and student development opportunities may dent students’ confidence and preparedness for life after university.

As universities and students’ unions begin to plan for freshers’ and refreshers’ weeks, it will be key that the student body is listened to and supported to make the best out of their remaining time at university.

Career plans

Looking ahead to their employability prospects half of students (and nearly 60 per cent of final year students) have no confidence about the job market when they graduate and a third are worried that their degree won’t help them secure a graduate job. If the sector doesn’t grasp the opportunity to renew students’ confidence in their future working lives, many could feel that their forbearance during the pandemic has been wasted.

The pandemic has also changed students’ career outlook with flexible working and job security becoming more important, and for almost half location less important when thinking about their first job. This will present opportunities for innovative employers which universities should engage with, and could form an important part of the government’s levelling up agenda.

So there is lots for the sector to consider and act on as we look to build back better from the next academic year. We hope the Student Futures Commission can play a supportive role in mobilising a collaborative effort to ensure that our young people can be confident in their future and the part that a university education can do in facilitating that future.

The Student Futures Commission is grateful to our partner, Group GTI, for providing access to their Cibyl platform to conduct the survey.

The survey was sent out and responses gathered via the Cibyl database of 1.5 million UK students from 140+ universities across all year groups, ethnicities, gender, sexuality and socio-economic profiles. Cibyl was used as a research partner, to support with research design, survey programming, responses collection and data processing. 2,147 university students  were surveyed from across the UK between 14-19 May.

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