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Student resilience – it’s all about empowerment

Accompanying a new Unite Students report on student resilience, Jenny Shaw outlines a new model for considering how students adapt to new environments and can be best supported through their studies.
This article is more than 7 years old

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

My first experience of working with resilience was in a community setting. In my home town, in fact on the sort of estate I grew up on, a visionary local charity was doing intensive resilience work with troubled families. The results were transformative and empowering to the families involved, and to the whole community, with impacts that I’m confident will be felt for many years and perhaps even lifetimes.

As a result of that experience I’ve devoted a great deal of thought to the idea of resilience ever since. For me it is, and always will be, about individual empowerment and positive transformation, a promising and exciting approach that has many potential applications in education, social care, management and parenting.

So it’s with some dismay that I’ve seen student resilience characterised as a victim-blaming approach, which of course it can be if applied in particular ways.

This week Unite Students has published the first in-depth study into UK student resilience, co-authored with Emily McIntosh from the University of Bolton. In it we propose a research-informed resilience model that we believe has significant potential for students and the universities who seek to support them.

There are three core principles sitting behind our position on resilience:

  1. Resilience can be developed
  2. Anyone can usefully develop their resilience at any stage of life
  3. It fundamentally supports academic learning at HE level

Informed by literature and demonstrated through a large, survey-based dataset, we look at five different aspects of resilience in two categories:

  • factors internal to the student (self-management skills, emotional control)
  • factors relating to the external, social world (integration with other students, quality of social relationships and ability to turn to others for support).

Together, these factors are a strong predictor of life satisfaction among students, and also have a measurable correlation with retention. Inevitably some groups of students score lower on one or more of these resilience measures – students with a mental health condition, for example, and students from D and E socioeconomic groups. So why are we claiming this as an empowerment approach – is this not simply the same old deficit thinking?

I believe not. This is a data-driven model informed by research literature, and it all depends on what you think the data is telling you. A closer look at the data reveals not a deficit but a hidden disadvantage, ways in which certain groups of students are not having their needs met. It also suggests improved ways in which these needs could be met, and it does so by giving a greater understanding of that need – a student-led rather than institution-led approach.

For example, as a group, students from socioeconomic groups D and E have just as effective self-management skills as their peers but are less likely to be integrated with their fellow students, even when living in halls or shared houses. In other words, it is the social aspect of the higher education context that is proving marginalising to them.

Among other things this insight prompts a more inclusive approach to helping students transition to university, and suggests targeted interventions that might be effective. It also suggests that interventions focused on developing the self-management skills of this group of students – which may seem like an obvious approach on the surface of it – are not what’s needed.

I also believe that for many students this insight has the potential to be directly empowering. Understanding the implications of their own self-reported experiences and attitude suggests ways in which they can boost their own chances of success and happiness, and may give validity to requests for reasonable adjustments. In publishing this report we hope to start a useful debate in the sector: a debate about human potential rather than deficit; a conversation about academic and personal development; a recognition of the need to remove hidden barriers; and ultimately a positive approach to student wellbeing.

The Student Resilience Report can be accessed at

You are also invited to join the debate on Twitter using the hashtag #studentresilience

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