In September 1995 I was dropped off by my dad into my student house at the University of the West of England at 2.15pm on a Sunday afternoon.

Three hours later I was in the SU bar pretending to like Guiness with some posh people telling tales of taking a year out to build schools and doing something called “interrailing”. I didn’t really know what to say. On my gap year I had also travelled and worked – but I had travelled to Wolverhampton to work in a shoe shop.

Less than twenty hours after being dropped off I was in my first lecture, being confused that everyone else seemed to be taking notes. Less than a month later, I was on my first field trip, interacting with people that seemed to have been on lots of residential field trips before. And six weeks in, I was set my first university assignment – with no real idea of what it was that I was supposed to do to succeed.

We might all have had the same “induction”, we’d all seen the sunday supplements telling us how to survive on a student budget, and it wasn’t as if making mistakes was always some huge disaster. But it was a bit like being at a theme park where everyone else had Fast Track tickets to bypass the queues, knew which catering and coffee outlets offered the biggest portions, and had a plan for the order they’d ride the rollercoasters in to fit the most into a day. We were all equal. But some of us were more equal than others.

Get ready for this

Deep in the history of the UK’s higher education system is the idea that “getting in” to university implies a level of readiness. You have the grades – and by association the cultural and social capital – to cope with the deep end of the higher education swimming pool. Press stories written by people who got those grades and had that capital use words like “survival” to describe that first day, week, year or even entire higher education experience, with endless tips on “coping” and “getting through”. Subtly, it’s framed as a sorting process – if you can survive all of that, you’ll thrive in the cut-throat, demanding “real world”.

But it’s never been clear to me that this model of survive-to-thrive is wise, or works, or isn’t at the very least hugely wasteful of student potential.

In the early eighties, my parents dropped me off at our local swimming pool, and I was pushed into the deep end of Walsall swimming baths. I panicked, scrambled out, developed a teenage penchant for fake verucas and stomach upsets, and I still can’t really swim.

On the competency staircase, we know that the step of “conscious incompetence” is a dangerous one. Handled badly, we get stuck on that step, or fall off the staircase and convince ourselves that this skill isn’t for us. Handled well, we’re nurtured through the discomfort – and go on to be the best that we can be at swimming, or driving, or being a student on a higher education course.

It’s not weird to assume that institutions of education would believe in nurture rather than nature, is it?

Ready steady go

In the last decade, there’s been a slew of evidence suggesting that more and more students really aren’t prepared and ready when they arrive at university. They are more socially diverse, and more varied in their educational backgrounds. They are more often now recruited on the basis of potential than achievement, suggesting that we need to help them convert that potential into our frameworks of achievement. The environments they enrol into are much more complex than before – they’re bigger, more impersonal, more expensive and more demanding. They might get a campus tour, or a timetable, or a library induction – but navigation is about confidence as much as it’s about maps.

The truth is that making mistakes that they can learn from is harder than it used to be. The pressure to get a first or a distinction is now intense. Having the space and time to get something wrong in formative, non compulsory assessment feels like a luxury if you’re working 30 hours a week. And many of the social, interpersonal and sexual mistakes that we used to regard as treatable with a clip around the ear would now rightly result in a social cancellation or a disciplinary investigation.

The go-to solutions for almost all of these issues has been initiatives that can be deployed before a course starts. International students commonly arrive earlier. Summer schools are developed for those that are first in the family to access higher education. And there’s an endless stream of online interventions – on everything from sexual consent to academic integrity – hurled at students trying to enjoy a few weeks off in August before they start shopping for a new duvet.

Some of these initiatives take place right at the start. On some campuses, welcome weeks are now so packed full of well-meaning induction and orientation activity that they’re even more overwhelming than singing “Footloose” on five shots of tequila. The message they send is simple – you have a seven day mission to get some friends, learn about diversity, navigate the campus and buy the books – and then you’ll be “ready”. Yet in reality, thousands still won’t be – especially if they’re first in family, there though clearing, from another country or deviate in some other way from the mythical “normal” student that even the most diverse campuses seem to be doomed to default to in perpetuity.

And there’s a flipside to that too – because the more we adapt higher education around the needs and backgrounds of diverse groups of students, the less comfortable we become at pointing out some of the gaps in knowledge, skill or confidence that some students then carry into their career. While there may not be a “typical” student, there are some things that we do need all students to be able to understand, know and do – and unless we’re explicit about them, a desire to avoid discrimination and widen participation will in and of itself cause the narrowing of their chances of success.

Crucially, this matters more than it used to – because the pandemic exacerbated divides in preparedness. Research is telling us that some have suffered a lot from a lack of engagement and social interaction with peers. Others have big gaps in knowledge. Teachers are telling us that some are finding it hard to manage study, and there are major mental health concerns all round. Our belonging research with Pearson found that 4 in 10 students agreed they experience imposter syndrome in the higher education academic environment. Where they’re wrong, they need to know. Where they’re right, they need to help to address it.

A tribute to students

One of the good bits of news when we think about the way that students develop is that over the years, we’ve become pretty good at defining an ideal exit.

Graduate attributes frameworks and their ilk detail and describe the qualities and skills that universities think graduates ought to be developing to succeed in the real world. At their best, they help shape curricula, inspire changes to teaching and learning strategies, and cause innovation in assessment. Done well, they allow subject specific competencies to sit alongside universal graduate aspirations; they integrate curricula, co-curricular and extra curricular activities; and allow students to pick a path of development that works for them and their goals.

So it’s odd, if you think about it, that we’ve worked so hard to think about how students become graduates – but haven’t thought nearly so hard about how entrants become students. It’s bizarre that we know students drop out amid a deep sense that they don’t belong without taking deliberate steps to ensure that they know how to. And it’s surreal that the intense pressure students place on themselves to maximise the utility they’ll gain from a lifetime of higher tax is rarely matched by a process that would help them do so.

At this year’s Secret Life of Students event, I was lucky to be working with student experience expert and UEL Dean of Students Michelle Morgan – where we posed an important question to delegates. To be a full, functioning student, what and who do you need to know, what would it be wise to understand, and what do you need to be able to do?

The answers were as varied as they were fascinating. Some focussed on understanding what is required of university level work – especially where that’s different to the approach expected from a school or college. Some said it was important that students knew where to access help – with academic, financial, accommodation, and wellbeing. Some discussed some basic life skills like finance, cleaning, cooking and using public transport. Others discussed social capital – stressing that students both need to find others like them, and be exposed carefully, constructively and with curtiosity to those not like them too.

Some focussed on spatial navigation – ensuring that students knew the campus, the city, the public transport options and the cultural facilities. Some discussed subject-specific foundational skills that might previously have been regarded as universal. Many mentioned assessment offences, and sexual consent, and freedom of speech. Some discussed the university’s policies and procedures. Others even said that it was important that students knew about OfS’ “B” conditions on quality, or the NSS questions describing a good student experience, so they could contribute to engagement discussions as partners rather than just describing whether their experience made them happy or sad.

Some argued that students needed to understand how to organise their lives in a context of much more independent study. Some said it was important that students understood the degree algorithm. One group stressed that first in family students needed to understand how important extracurricular activities are when presenting to an employer. Some wanted students to know their rights and be able to raise concerns before they converted into crises.

Some were keen that students knew how much everything would cost. Others wanted to make students knew how to use the library and the learning resources on offer. Some were concerned about making erroneous assumptions about students’ digital literacy. One group wanted to make sure that students knew how to find part-time work. Another was keen to ensure that students knew how to work together in groups, spot the signs of poor mental health and support each other appropriately.

Star spangled options

In 1888 Boston College in the United States offered its first Freshman Orientation course. Reed College, Oregon was the first to offer a course for credit. In 1970, the University of South Carolina created a new course designed to “bond students to the institution”. Across the United States, universities require or recommend new student modules – often a semester long and composed of everything from campus tours to group work, diversity classes and consent education. Real time and space is made for nurture – for students to find, and discover, and make connections – to learn about and navigate the complexity and build both bonding and bridging social capital that the studies say they need to survive and thrive.

There are of course plenty of attempts here at reframing the first year as formative, with all sorts of great initiatives from both UK and European on display at events like this– some of which we’ve looked at on Wonkhe before. But they’re often piecemeal, or poorly funded, or subject specific, or hobbyist in nature. And they rub up against the hamster wheels of the four module, two-term traditions that have all grown up in a different era – luxury extras that few of us dare make into official parts of the curriculum or academic year.

The trouble is, we’re now putting so much into getting students “ready” before it all starts that these initiatives, designed to stop university life being overwhelming – become overwhelming in and of themselves. We need a step change – big chunks of that first year or first term time and budget need to go to make room for the armbands that inexperienced higher education swimmers need to realise their potential. Every issue that emerges – student conduct, essay mills, harassment, edtech, study skills, online hate crime, consent, mental health, independent study, finding work, joining in – they all point to a need to find real space and capacity to develop understanding.

Everybody get up singing

There are five aspects to this that can make it work.

The first is a need to agree that a student attribute framework is something we should all be developing. University-wide but with components that are subject- and level-specific, it should integrate the knowledge, understanding and skills that we know enable a student to succeed at university. It should reflect all that we know about confident, successful students – revealing the secrets carried by and passed on through those with a long family history of higher education. And this is much more than mere “transition” – implying that students just need to become familiar with a new environment. It’s more that they need to become something new themselves – a student in higher education.

Assembling all the feedback, it’s perfectly possible to imagine a framework which simplifies and demystifies becoming a fully-fledged student. It might contain categories like this:

  • Rights, responsibilities and policies
  • Learning at university
  • Subject specific foundations
  • Understanding assessment
  • Equality, diversity and freedom of speech
  • The campus and the city
  • Mental health and wellbeing
  • Living, travelling and working as a student

For some, putting all of the aspects that can cause a student to be successful into a framework like this might remove all the fun from the unfurling experience of being a student. These are not people that understand how anxious students are these days, or how to reduce that anxiety.

Next, we should cause incoming students to reflect on where they are personally in relation to that framework. A universal pre-arrival questionnaire and peer-delivered interview on entry would allow course leaders to understand the cohort they’re about to be supporting, and should cause a student to start to plan their development in the areas where they need to know or understand more.

Developing against the student attribute framework should become credit-bearing, with the submission of a portfolio at the end of an undergraduate first year or postgraduate first term. Some of the aspects of the framework might involve independent study, attending taught classes, volunteering to help out with the academic society or just doing some discovery on the web. Some should involve participating in teambuilding activities, or reading up on teaching and learning, or finding out about employment.

We should regard supporting students to succeed within the framework as a community and team effort. Professional services colleagues, students’ union officers and staff, community partners and other alumni should all be involved in delivery, but students should also regard many aspects of their development as ones that are about discovery. There might be an app that supports it. Or badges. Or a sticker book. Gamification is huge in students’ lives – why not in their student lives?

Some aspects of it should be tested. If we’re serious about consent, or diversity, or academic integrity, we need to know if students can’t meet a minimum standard. Just as it is possible to fail a driving test, or fail an employment probation period, it should be possible to fail at being a student. But that possibility will also mean far fewer students fail to continue, complete or progress – metrics that matter as B3 minimums, TEF-excellence maximums and also happen to matter to students just because they do.

And it should mean that every student is caused to develop the three important parts of social capital – links with people like them, links with people not like them, and links with the university, the community and the country that enable us to be good citizens.

The best thing of all about a student attributes framework is that it would help us to create a fair level on which all students would sit. It is true that some students know the secret codes to student success and have the resources and advantages to deploy them. But just as it’s important for international students to learn English idioms and for first in family students to know the value of societies and field trips, it’s pretty important that those “traditional“ students that some of us once were open their minds to others rather than demand that others merely become more like them.

Despite the access fantasies of some, higher education policy is never going to deliberately seek to reduce the middle classes’ grip on HE. Developing an individual depth and collective breadth of understanding about everything from socio-economics to harassment and from higher education policy to housing rights will at least improve them as students, graduates and citizens too.

After all, the only thing worse than a student who doesn’t feel ready is one that does, but in truth really isn’t ready for the world they’re about to have to navigate.

7 responses to “Students need to know the secret codes to success at university

  1. ” with the submission of a portfolio at the end of an undergraduate first year or postgraduate first term”

    Sorry Jim… many (most?) Universities have already tried this – what is the obsession with portfolios in Higher Education? outside of regulatory requirements (Nursing) I’ve never really seen them done particularly well nor have any real benefit.

    Get them on linkedin or other approriate industry platform iif you want to go down this route.

  2. A ‘Student Attributes Framework’ is a nice concept. I am receiving requests for ever more ‘compulsory’ modules/training/activities for students to complete before they join us. They are all worthy candidates for inclusion but the list is becoming overwhelming. I think many of us have introduced extended inductions, but a more explicit framework with clear time allocation is a very good thought.

  3. We absolutely need an integrated, personalised model of ongoing student transition, instead of the traditional bolt-on, generic interventions and inductions which so often operate on a deficit model and put the greatest burden on the most disadvantaged students. We do however need to make sure that what we create instead takes a genuinely different approach and is not too instrumental a journey, avoiding a normative assimilation model, bearing in mind the social capital issues that vary so wildly across our student populations in the context of decolonisation and thinking about how we can adjust to our students as well as how our students can adjust to us.

    1. This comment is spot on!

      Often times these well meaning initiatives become prescriptive about how a student should be without considering what they are bringing to the table. Its on the students who come from different educational/class/racial backgrounds to adapt to unstated norms which reproduces the system of inequalities not dismantles it. To students caught in this conundrum of trying to be both authentic to who and where they come from and to fit into the university, they can feel like class/race traitors and/or suffer from imposter syndrome.

  4. Thanks for the interesting article, Jim. This is an area QAA and QAA Scotland have been working on for sometime. Please do have a look at these sets of resources:

    skills & strategies for effective student transitions –

    ideas, tools & blogs –

    collaborative enhancement project bringing gamification to student induction

  5. This resonates but I suppose the challenge from students is that they have come to university to study X or Y and not ‘being and becoming a students in HE’. Unless they see the content as valuable to who they are or want to be, it’s hard to get good engagement with some of these areas. And you can have the Duning-Kruger effect to boot alongside the ‘unconsciously incompetent’ category meaning those that might most need it, might assume they don’t. I guess there’s a need to create a ‘need to know’ or to create the conditions in which these categories of learning are seen as being valuable, and even exciting knowledge to engage with and engage with their ideas of ‘this is what university is meant to be like’.

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