During the months of intensive oral and written evidence-gathering for the UPP Foundation Student Futures Commission, we were flooded with thoughtful insights and reflections from across the higher education sector. But two moments stand out for me as serious wake-up calls.
The first was a comment from Geoff Layer, chair of the Disabled Students’ Commission, who noted that disabled students felt that the things they had been asking for over many years, but were told they couldn’t have, had been delivered in days and weeks when the pandemic hit.
Disabled students too often languish at the bottom of to-do lists because the interests of the majority non-disabled students’ needs tend to come first. This must change: anything we can do to make disabled students’ lives easier needs to be prioritised.
The comment also highlighted that colleagues in higher education have worked incredibly hard to react to the shocking circumstances of the pandemic and have perhaps surprised themselves at what they turned out to be capable of. Not that anyone wants HE staff to continue to work under the intense pressure that has prevailed in the past 18 months but it is a salutary lesson in change management and pace, albeit in crisis mode.
The second was feedback from Mhairi Underwood from The Student Room, who had heard students identifying as being from the “cohort with the fake grades”. The idea that young people feel that their grades are somehow not worthy speaks to the wider sense of low confidence that students have articulated as we collected our evidence.
Most students feel they are below where they should be academically; they are anxious about their rusty social skills, and worry about developing social and professional relationships. They are downcast about their job prospects when they graduate, with many turning to “panic Masters” to postpone their entry to what they perceive to be a disastrously competitive recruitment market.
Although the commission has yet to complete its evidence on graduate jobs and employability, I have been dismayed to hear that many employers don’t even bother to acknowledge job applications, let alone give feedback. Shame on them.
Young people have borne the brunt of the fallout from the pandemic, with their studies online, socialising curtailed, summer and on-campus jobs drying up, and the absence of so many rites of passage into young adulthood – school-leaving rituals and graduation ceremonies amongst them. Employers are the grown-ups here, and they should know better.
Building back student confidence
Our interim report articulates this sense of low confidence and uncertainty among students and points to a number of areas where the sector will want to prioritise resources. Much has been said about the downsides of online learning for students – and digital inequality remains a significant barrier to engagement – but the academic community has also noted plenty of benefits, not least for opening up innovation in learning design, which in turn seems to have played a role in improving inclusion for diverse students.
In particular, real strides have been made in assessment where less time-pressured exam-hall and more open-book plus more time have allowed many to showcase their academic capability and progress in ways that have been something of a revelation to students and academics alike.
There is an important job to do to counteract the negative framing of digitally enhanced learning in the public domain so that continuing to deploy aspects of teaching online is understood as a positive enhancement compared to the pre-Covid era.
Unsurprisingly, the evidence also highlights the potential for a worsening mental wellbeing crisis amongst students and this will need to be an enduring priority for universities in the coming years.
But we heard about amazing initiatives put in place to head off mental health problems, including the attention being given to transitions, not just for incoming first year students, but also for returners to campus. Student support services have learned of benefits to offering online or remote services, sometimes finding those dubbed “hard-to-reach” a little less so when the offer is made more flexible.
Engagement for inclusion
Student engagement has long been a challenge for universities but the crisis appears to have crystallised the concept of “belonging” as a more inclusive and affiliative framing of the idea.
Many universities will be thinking hard about how to foster this sense of belonging, through service and volunteering, through extra-curricular activities and through more authentic communication with students. Students want to be talked to, not about.
In everything discussed about students, it is clear that those from poorer backgrounds, and non-traditional students more generally, have been most affected by the pandemic – whether through digital inequality, financial poverty, or lack of wider community support. We were left in no doubt that these students are being prioritised in the sector’s response.
I was heartened to hear about what felt like a step-change in relationships between students’ unions and university leadership teams. SUs have undoubtedly played an enormously positive role and have welcomed more collaborative working with university staff to the benefit of all.
Making it count
Underlining everything we heard was a story of immense hard work, sacrifice, and no little hardship as staff worked tirelessly to do their best for students during the pandemic. It is important to remember that we cannot do our best for students in these difficult times unless we also care for the staff who care for them.
I would like to place on record my sincere thanks to the UPP Foundation, and our partners Wonkhe, Group GTI, and Shakespeare Martineau, for their foresight in setting up the Student Futures Commission.
I would also like to thank the wonderful commissioners who have given so freely of their time and expertise and to everyone who has provided their insights in person or in writing. Our work so far has shown again how much the higher education sector is capable of when it has a shared endeavour.
The UPP Foundation Student Futures Commission has published an interim report of its findings, which you can find here. The final report will be published in the New Year.