The future isn’t what it used to be – it’s time for action to secure students’ futures post-pandemic

As the work of the Students Futures Commissions culminates with a final report, Mary Curnock Cook calls on the sector to take up the challenge and secure students' futures

Mary Curnock Cook OBE is chair of the UPP Foundation Student Futures Commission and a former chief executive of UCAS

For much of the pandemic, an important public debate played out about how restrictions impacted the mental health, development and attainment of students in schools.

But as that debate went on, it became increasingly clear that the issues affecting aspiring and current higher education students were not getting adequate attention. In the national conversation about “catch up”, students in higher education were being left behind.

The Student Futures Commission, instigated by the UPP Foundation, set out to right this wrong. We wanted to understand more deeply how the pandemic impacted HE students and work with them along with the sector to identify what could be done to get them and their lives back on track for the successful futures they crave. And we hope that our final report and recommendations, published today, will help to do just that.

It has been a rare privilege to witness such a generous and collaborative effort to help secure successful student futures after the pandemic and my honour to chair the work.

Low confidence

As the commission’s work progressed, we rapidly identified a worrying baseline of low confidence. School leavers and current students alike were worried that they were behind in their academic progress — regardless of whether this was true. And even if their marks were holding up, there was much anxiety about lost or rusty social skills.

Following months of miserable isolation, students were worried about making and maintaining friendships and fearful about professional interactions with academics and future employers.

And even as the graduate job market started to bounce back, students’ confidence about finding a job after graduation was especially low, sometimes manifesting as increased demand for what became known as the “panic masters”.

Particularly concerning was that low confidence was especially evident for students at a disadvantage because of their background, heritage, or because they were disabled. Increased mental ill-health was a problem across the student cohorts but was a serious issue for these groups.

Little wonder when we considered the compound impact of multiple challenges — the removal of the ability to work part-time, the failure to offer meaningful additional financial support, the lack of space to study effectively, and the significant impacts of digital poverty.

Looking to the future

But while all of this was the backdrop to our evidence gathering, it was not its focus. During the evidence sessions, the many related conversations we had, and through the wide-ranging, expert and generous written contributions we received, we encouraged colleagues to focus on students’ futures and consider how we can secure a pathway back to success and confidence.

Take the strange debate on face to face teaching in the media and public. We have found that effective digital approaches can augment and embed social interactions as well as teaching and learning. This is particularly important because those that are least likely to be able to engage with digital tools are those that might have most to gain from them. Based on the evidence, digital approaches and innovations developed in partnership with students can play a crucial part in enhancing the student experience and meeting specific student needs.

Or take what we found about belonging. We’ve known for a long time that it matters significantly when getting to the next year, achieving the grades and completing the course. What’s clear is that there is considerable scope to enhance work in this area — helping students to form the kinds of powerful, supportive communities that were suddenly missing when lockdowns were announced.

And whatever the hardship for students during the pandemic, the most searing disappointment for many was what seemed like rapidly diminishing prospects for meaningful and fulfilling graduate employment. We propose changing the conversation about pathways to employability, articulating more clearly the skills and attributes that are already present in the curriculum and which contribute to getting a graduate job. This, together with more opportunities to bring extracurricular activity into the curriculum, could rapidly improve students’ slightly jaded attitudes towards careers services and employability support that we came across in our work.

Our report, which I would highly recommend spending some time with — represents a call to action for universities and students to co-produce a Student Futures Manifesto. We think this could be a powerful statement of intent, grounded on the themes and ideas that we identified, reflecting the individual missions and makeup of individual universities.

We want these manifestos to extend and embed the new spirit of collaboration and co-creation between students and universities that we heard often emerged as a response to the immediate crisis of the pandemic. We also hope it will provide a valuable framework to bring together much of the good work that is already going on in universities to surface and celebrate a renewed focus on the student experience.

Just think of the powerful signal it would send if every university or college’s student futures manifesto was placed front and centre on websites and marketing materials for future students this summer.

That’s up to you now to achieve and continue this dialogue inside your institutions with colleagues and students. I sincerely hope that you find the commission’s work a helpful waypoint in delivering the futures that students deserve after the pandemic.

You can find out more about the Student Futures Commission and download the report in full here.

4 responses to “The future isn’t what it used to be – it’s time for action to secure students’ futures post-pandemic

  1. Hi Mary,
    I also noticed myself the confidence level of students decreasing and this leading to increasing dropouts. What I found that worked was assigning group / pair projects. I know in a time when we say that children spend too much time in front of the screen I assigned pair projects/ group projects. They were voluntary. So what they did was that they connected and they got to talk,. while working on their assignment. But I think this helped, it covered partially somehow the interaction that they got during breaks when they were physically in the same room.

  2. I’m looking forward to working with QAA members on all the areas of the Student Futures manefesto. We have curated an eviable collection of resources to support students making positive transitions into, through and out of HE including a focus on fostering a sense of belonging
    https://www.qaa.ac.uk/membership/highlights-from-last-years-membership-activities/covid-19/supporting-student-transitions .

    We also have resources on future learning, teaching and assessment such as our Hallmarks of Success playbooks which offer practical support in designing and delivering in a digital and hybrid format – https://www.qaa.ac.uk/membership/current-year-membership-themes-and-topics/beyond-covid-19-the-future-of-digital-and-blended-delivery

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