In the wake of the Covid-19 pandemic, we have a “lost generation” – the young people who have experienced the disruption to their education of significant lockdown periods impacting learning and assessment in the last academic year, with decisions on exams and assessment pending for this summer.
But labels like these are not always helpful if they come to define a fixed condition. At HELOA – the professional association of staff in higher education helping students and their supporting families and advisers to make informed decisions about their futures – we have been speaking to our members to gauge the general feeling among the incoming student cohort, the support they need and what plans are in place, so they can reclaim their own generational narrative.
Unfogging the future
Unprecedented challenges bring unprecedented concerns and the incoming cohort of students will require novel forms of support. Our members, in working closely with prospective students and their influencers, have noted that these centre on two main areas: student experience and mental health. What underpins both of these is a real need for clarity and reassurance.
Unsurprisingly students are desperately seeking clarity on what their university experience will be like academically and socially. They are digitally fatigued and many have not had the opportunity to physically visit where they will be studying. The vaccine rollout brings us a step closer to “normality” and the potential for universities to welcome students back on campus. However, after months of study from home, students may struggle to adjust to a busy campus with in person lectures and potentially, still socially distanced, limited contact.
Our partners, The Student Room, report 4,061 forum posts about “stress”, “anxiety” and “worry” in the first two weeks of February alone. Students are anxious about the gaps in their education and loss of learning, and are stressed and concerned about the lack of clarity over exam results and grades. On top of this the normal things students worry about, such as “will I make any friends?” and “how will I cope moving away from home?” have been magnified.
Clear and consistent support
Prospective students require a helping hand to guide them through the complexities of finishing their studies or transitioning from work, to study at university. Students need support from their prospective universities in the form of information, advice and guidance for those who are yet to make their decision and social and academic communities for those who have.
The practical support will need to meet them through each stage of their transition. Careers advice to make the right next steps for them; study and time management skills pivotal to meeting the demands of their courses; confidence and resilience guidance to adjust to student life. For some students, the financial implications of the pandemic will also need to be considered through targeted support. It’s also often assumed that students are confident in using technology but many will have found its regular use in the pandemic intimidating.
Students require a comprehensive programme of transition support that goes beyond one off webinars and really aims to directly tackle the concerns students have, bringing some certainty in such uncertain times.
The sector’s response
As a sector, we’ve become adept at pivoting and triaging based on need. The pandemic has accelerated the awareness of the need for greater transition support and our member universities have been enhancing and extending their inductions for students and liaising with schools and colleges to assess their students’ needs.
In preparation for another disrupted year of assessment, some universities pre-empted the extended equal consideration deadline by releasing their revised admissions statements and policies on flexible admissions and extended deadlines of applications.
At HELOA, we responded to the recent consultation seeking clarity in communications, consistency and fairness from government and Ofqual in their alternative plans for students grades this summer.
Peer to peer information is keenly sought after by students, searching for the authentic voice of those living their student life – whatever that looks and feels like right now. Our members are working with their students to generate student-created asynchronous content, from pre-arrival modules for incoming students, to live Q&As and blog content. There will be a continuation of targeted mentoring and tutoring support towards incoming students too from a range of institutions and UniConnect hubs, building on responsive initiatives last cycle.
In response to the adverse impact of the pandemic on household income for some, and on part-time jobs, which are a fundamental source of income to subsidise university life for many students, our members are also telling us they are making additional bursaries and funds available to those most in need.
Transition, peer support and the review of admissions policies are all focuses in annual planning for universities. Building on existing practice and sharing new ways of supporting students in the sector, through blended transition, pre-entry guidance and outreach have benefits that will outlast the pandemic. As we wait on further guidance, we hope to provide the face-to-face support that students desperately need.