Student wellbeing is about academic experience – especially during Covid

Students' health and well-being is influenced by academic practice, argues Iwi Ugiagbe-Green

Iwi is a Reader at Manchester Metropolitan University, and principal investigator of ASPIRE

The wreckage of the ongoing Covid-19 pandemic continues to highlight the need to centre empathy, kindness, and compassion in our relations with other people.

There are countless life lessons that we have been taught throughout the pandemic that remind us of what it is to be human.

We have all been impacted by the pandemic in collective and individual ways. I, like many colleagues working in higher education, have experienced burnout, stress, and a sense of hopelessness. The UK Engagement Survey reports a significant decline since 2019 in student engagement, with ‘“students spending limited amounts of time engaging and building relationships with staff and other students.”

Student engagement remains an ongoing sector wide issue. It is very worrying for lots of obvious reasons and is, in my view, an indicator of yet to be fully surfaced health and well-being issues experienced by students.

The health and well-being of our students should always be in the forefront of our practice as educators – but even more so as we try to thrive through this ongoing pandemic. Jim Dickinson’s blog on collective anxiety is a stark reminder that students’ health and well-being is influenced by academic practice, and a collective issue.

It raises the question – is there a way to approach teaching and learning during something like a pandemic in a way that addresses the issues of mental health exacerbated by the restrictions and uncertainty?

Mutual personhood

The African conception of the person is “Ubuntu.” It is an African philosophy of mutual personhood. Kenyan theologian John Mbiti explains that unlike the Enlightenment conception of humanism – “I think therefore I am” – ubuntu’s conception of humanism is of the person as a social being who is always becoming. “I am because we are.”

Learning has long been understood as social activity. The lessons we continue to learn about who we are, who are students are and what our (learning) communities need to survive and thrive through and beyond this pandemic are undoubtedly rooted in social understandings.

Abantu is a shared philosophy of the Bantu speaking people of sub-Saharan Africa that emphasises our shared humanity as human beings, and is an affirmation of one’s humanity through recognition of the other in his/her uniqueness and difference.

In supporting all of our students in their learning, we must recognise their uniqueness and centre humanity in our practises, now more than ever. The scholarship of teaching and learning acknowledges this through the praxis of what is known as “compassionate pedagogy”.

It’s an approach to assessment, learning and teaching practice that emphasises the values of authenticity, power relations, trust, courage, plurality, respect, empathy, inclusivity, and responsibility. The praxis centres students in their journeys of becoming.

Getting there

So, what is a “journey of becoming”? The wonderful US attorney and former first lady, Michelle Obama called her autobiography “Becoming.” She describes a journey of self-discovery, of living a whole-centred, authentic, purposeful life. A journey of becoming is about understanding one’s values, strengths, capabilities, as well as treading and navigating spaces, which may be uncomfortable and tensioned, to try and develop unrealised strengths.

The connections of Ubuntu, Abantu and compassionate pedagogy form the foundations of a new package of support and opportunity (colloquially known as, ASPIRE) that I have designed for Black and Black (mixed) heritage people. ASPIRE was developed in response to a UKRI/Research England funding competition launched in October 2020 to support projects seeking to improve access and participation of “BAME” (a hugely problematic catch all for a very heterogeneous collective of students, not racialised as white) students, into doctoral level study. In September 2021, UKRI/Research England confirmed they were to fund 13 projects and ASPIRE is one of them!

Although the funding competition focused on pipeline issues, ASPIRE seeks to develop life wide skills and change behaviours and practises in supporting Black and Black (mixed) heritage scholars. ASPIRE is a 6-month programme, intentionally and purposefully designed to support each scholar, each of whom is recognised and supported as different individuals, on their journey of “becoming”.

At the heart of the programme is literally its heart. The programme centres the health and well-being of all members of the ASPIRE community, as a priority. There are safe “intersectional” and collective spaces for discussion and dialogue to share racialised experiences and individual’s positionality in those spaces. The potential trauma evoked and shared is to be mediated by wellbeing experts with lived experience.

Delivering ASPIRE is a collective effort, and by showcasing the capabilities and talents of our Black and Black (heritage) scholars, we seek to change the narrative of what “good” looks like.

Who needs fixing?

And this isn’t about “fixing up” students in a deficit model. We aim to orientate persons not racialised as Black and/or Black heritage to better understand racialised experience and how their intersectional positionality impacts on the experiences of Black and Black (mixed) heritage people. The power relations of scholars, supervisors, advisors, mentors, employers in the programme are made explicit.

However, wherever possible and appropriate those power relations are reconfigured to position the Black and Black heritage person front and centre and ensure that they are partners in their learning.

A central aim of ASPIRE is to surface, nurture, model and showcase strengths, capabilities, values, and unrealised strengths of Black and Black heritage scholars on the programme. Rather than reinforcing that deficit model and stereotype bias, so often ascribed to Black and Black heritage people, the programme focuses on celebrating our humanity through creative connections.

In practice, this is the development of an ASPIRE community artefacts e.g., playlist, affirmation banner, poems, academic posters, blogs, articles etc through which students’ journey of becoming is told through our showcase event.

The programme is technical too! Compassionate pedagogy envelopes a packed programme of networking with professional bodies and employers, workshops, presentations, paid employment internship, quantitative and qualitative research workshops, academic writing, and study skills development and a student-led conference.

As an education academic who lives imposter syndrome in research spaces, it is a testament to the programme that I feel safe in my vulnerability to do the quantitative research excellence block of the programme with our scholars.

There is lots of formative feedback to support each scholar to better navigate structures of opportunity, but always within the context of acknowledging systems that often disadvantage people racialised as Black and Black (mixed) heritage. We are not all the same. We must acknowledge, value and celebrate difference. Race does matter. So, let’s be real about it in our assessment, learning and teaching practice.

Umuntu ngumuntu ngabantu,” I am because we are.

I think this applies to all learning in all contexts. Centring humanity in our assessment, learning and teaching practice is needed now, more than ever.

One response to “Student wellbeing is about academic experience – especially during Covid

  1. This is an excellent article, not least because of the aims of ASPIRE, but the key point that Ubuntu is most definitely how all students develop in higher education. I have only been in HE for just under four years but can definitely see the difference in student personal development either side of the pandemic; community and group involvement, whether individuals like it or not, is key to learning, engagement and therefore development.
    I worked in the financial services industry for over 30 years and, if it’s any consolation, personal development and social learning is exactly the same in the workplace. Some of the biggest lessons are learned at the water-cooler and, dare I say it, pub outside of the working environment. These breaks from the actual job allow for true, group reflection; that is hard to recreate when we are in a ‘working from home’ situation. Couple this with a lack of confidence or ‘worthiness’, then personal development is so much harder. The work that ASPIRE seeks to do in this area looks amazing and so needed.
    Thank you for a very clear and thought-provoking article.

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