Jim is an Associate Editor at Wonkhe

There’s a strain of social media commentary emanating from within the sector that conveys a lot of anger whenever the media covers students, universities and “refunds”.

Part of it is understandable and justifiable consternation at the suggestion that universities have somehow been “closed”. Part of it is a fear that mass fee refunds would trigger institutional collapse at worst, and a fresh round of punishing belt-tightening at best. Part of it is a frustration at the idea that “online teaching” is somehow inferior to face to face teaching, yet when done well can be just as good if not better.

But some of it has a ring to it that wouldn’t be out of place “below the line” on a Daily Mail online article, where commentary on the student experience tends to think of it either as the author’s youth, or something involving Rik Mayall and Ade Edmondson.

Students pay for an education, which they’re getting, and they pay for the expertise and the brand of the university they go to. THEY DO NOT PAY TUITION FEES FOR A SOCIAL LIFE”

…says one contributor.

[The claim is that] students pay their tuition fees partly for the “university experience”. Attempts to define this become so extraneous (societies, social life, “finding yourself”) that it quickly moves away from anything ever actually provided by the university itself as an institution”

…says another.

Inputs, outputs and outcomes

The first thing to say is that whilst it’s doubtless massively important, higher education’s learning outcomes are not all provided by teaching. Learning at Level 4 depends on the supply of all sorts of other things too – facilities, peers, wifi, support services and an absence of disruption.

Hopefully we can all agree that it’s likely that even if students have still met the course outcomes, the balance of stuff between that provided by their university (that which they pay for) and that provided by them personally (that which they don’t) has shifted somewhat this year.

And anyway, it’s not as if they are only paying for the “learning outcomes”. It has to be possible to both be required to pay “full price”, and to fail a course. It’s the stuff that supports the outcomes that matters – and as I say, teaching is important but not the only thing universities provide to support learning – and when it comes to everything else, there’s likely to have been less of it or less access to it. Even if both the teaching and the wider stuff has been more expensive to provide and is involving more effort.

But let’s imagine that against all the odds, the learning objectives are still somehow met by students on most courses. And let’s park any mental health harms that our mode of delivery might have caused (like packing them into halls that had to be locked down) that need to somehow be addressed at some point.

Has there been any other loss other than “SOCIAL LIFE”? And if it is all just about “SOCIAL LIFE”, does that matter?

The student experience

The Sutton Trust has published two fascinating reports on what we might call the “wider” student experience. The first, called the “University of Life”, looks at “employability and essential life skills” at university – essentially a detailed look at what students got involved in and what they gained outside of the formal curriculum pre the pandemic.

There’s then a separate research brief on “Covid-19 and the university experience” that paints a picture of how much of that has survived during the restrictions. Plot spoiler – not a lot, and guess which students that has hit the hardest.

Let’s get across the pre-pandemic findings first. The lit review reminds us that this stuff matters – students taking part in extra-curricular activities, and especially being an office holder or student leader of some sort, are all associated with better outcomes for graduates.

Graduates who take part in extra-curricular activities are more likely to get graduate jobs, more likely to be satisfied with their current job, feel their job was appropriate for someone with their skills and qualifications, and to feel positive about their long term career prospects.

Students take part in a whole range of activities outside of their core academic work at university – things like paid work (79 per cent), student societies, sport and volunteering (61 per cent), work experience (43 per cent) and (some) study abroad (12 per cent). It’s a part of what’s “offered” – and a lot of students take universities and their students’ unions up on those offers.

While graduates felt their university course had helped them to develop skills, many of the skills not developed well by their course were developed by other activities – 43 per cent of those who took part in student societies felt it had developed their leadership skills, for example, and two thirds of students who took part in study abroad felt it improved their resilience.

Uneven distribution

But it won’t surprise you to learn that participation in those activities varies by background, and so therefore do the benefits. Just over half (52 per cent) of recent graduates from working class backgrounds took part in student societies, volunteering or sport, compared to almost two thirds of better-off students.

There is a similar gap in participation for work experience placements (36 per cent vs 46 per cent) and study abroad (9 per cent vs 13 per cent). And rates of participation in activities also differ for graduates from different groups of universities – three quarters of graduates from Russell Group universities take part in student societies, sport or volunteering, just under two thirds of those at Pre-1992s and fewer than half of those who go to a Post-1992 institution.

The stuff in the report on what is stopping students getting involved isn’t especially rich – we delved a lot further into both barriers and benefits of this sort of stuff in our work in this area with students’ unions a couple of years ago. But we should note here that a third who didn’t take part couldn’t due to paid work commitments – and just over a quarter didn’t feel confident speaking to other members of the society.

Crucially, financial concerns were common barriers for working class students. 16 per cent of graduates from poorer families who did not join a student society or volunteering group could not afford to take part, compared to a lower proportion (11 per cent) of their middle-class peers. And one in three (35 per cent) working class graduates were unable to take part because they did not have time due to paid work.

It all points to a desperate need for there to be a recognised access and participation agenda for this wider “student experience” stuff, which we’ve looked at on the site before – sadly to no great impact from regulators and funders who seem to obsess about courses, careers and completion but not this “wider opportunities” agenda that feeds it.

The fieldwork for this “University of life” report was carried out in January 2020, which will have posed the Sutton Trust a headache – put it out during the pandemic and it looks out of context, but sit on it and there’s a danger that it looks out of date.

So to accompany the publication, it has carried out some new polling which takes the January 2020 results as a baseline and asks – what’s happened to all this wider stuff during the pandemic? And the results are stark.

Enter the rona

Under the headline “Coronavirus has decimated the university experience”, it finds that almost 6 in ten reported taking part in student societies, volunteering or sport in autumn 2019, falling to 36 per cent in autumn 2020, and just under a third at present. Students were also less likely to have taken part in work experience or to be studying abroad. The number of students not taking part in any of these types of activities was up by more than half, from 23 per cent to 37 per cent.

The participation gap has widened during the pandemic – across the board, participation has fallen more from 2019 levels for working class students during the autumn 2020 term. 44 per cent of middle-class students for example took part in student societies, sport or volunteering last term compared to just 33 per cent of students from a working-class background.

Students living at home are much less likely to take part in wider university life generally, and so more now at home means more not taking part. Those from less well-off homes are consistently more likely to live at home, with almost two-thirds of those from low-income backgrounds saying they were living at home this term.

During the autumn 2020 term, just under a third of students said they weren’t taking part in activities beyond their academic course because they were put off by a lack of social interaction during online activities, and a further quarter cited “Zoom-fatigue” as a barrier.

When we looked at student activities we found a link between participation, mental health and career and course confidence. Here 70 per cent of students are worried about their mental health and wellbeing, and 10 per cent of low-income students said it was unlikely that they would complete the year, compared to 6 per cent of middle-class students.

Tellingly, the overwhelming majority of students (87 per cent) felt their development had been negatively impacted by pandemic restrictions. More students felt their development of non-academic life skills (such as communication, motivation, confidence, resilience or leadership) has been more negatively impacted compared to academic skills (18 per cent).

And skills and employment even beats worries about mental health and finances – with 76 per cent saying they are fairly or very worried about being able to gain skills and experience needed for employment.

It turns out there has been serious damage to students’ education after all. And as with almost every other aspect of the pandemic, it’s those on lower incomes who have been hit the hardest.

Fixing the problem

So what can be done to make up for it all?

The Sutton Trust’s own recommendations are curiously thin. On student finances stuff, it says that government and universities should look urgently at providing additional financial support for students in England:

Recent announcements are welcome, but government funding commitments are still unlikely to be enough to meet the scale of the challenge for these students.

It also says that universities should spread awareness of the financial and pastoral help available to students, and that universities should ensure all students have adequate access to the resources they need while lockdown continues and when they “reopen” – both to study and to take part in extra-curricular activities. This it says should include devices, adequate internet access, and where possible, providing Covid-secure study spaces for students who lack adequate study space at home.

That all makes sense – but there’s much more that students and their unions deserve here. And it should go without saying that none of what’s below is cost-free and needs real government financial support.

For graduating students, every university needs to be souping up and extending their employability activity commitments to students. I’m not talking about the old “CV support for life” thing – I mean dedicated effort that takes anything and everything that has been offered to students in the exposure-to, immersion-in and interaction-with employers space, and extended into 2021/22 for generation Covid. If that involves covering the costs for students to engage in events or work placements, so be it.

For continuing students, we need to make sure that the summer isn’t a complete write off – empowering and funding SUs, as well as things like sports departments, chaplaincies and volunteering units to allow students to rebuild their confidence, mental health and experience in making things happen. We looked at some of what a summer of learning might involve on the site a few weeks back.

For incoming students, universities need to understand the sheer amount of damage that’s been done to a sector that literally lives off morsels of SU funding and oodles of volunteer effort. Every week SUs are telling me that unlike most academic programmes, thousands of student societies, clubs, events and volunteering opportunities have been lost – in many cases forever. There might be a way to use the summer to save some of the stuff that’s dying, and pump prime new activity – but we’ll need to act fast and put the finance into a sub-sector whose finances and volunteer resources have been decimated.

In the longer term, we do need to build student activities and opportunities into access and participation planning. As with academic access work, some of that is about financial barriers and some of it is about wider social, cultural and practical barriers – and ought to involve SUs and universities working properly together on target setting and action planning to ensure the benefits of participation are felt and distributed more fairly, as well as OfS and its equivalents recognising the importance of this agenda in the wider student experience.

But above all, one of the big “offers” of the higher education sector is the sorting hat thing. An undergraduate degree confers an “advantage”. A master’s confers an “advantage”. Good honours confers an “advantage”. And all of the above from the Russell Group confers an “advantage”. Which begs the question – both before but especially after a pandemic – what do you do if a huge number of students have all of the above?

A decade ago former Leicester VC Bob Burgess’ review group bottled banishing the UK’s archaic degree classification system to the past, but we should revisit it. Post-pandemic, there is an even more pressing need to do justice to the full range of student experience by allowing a wider recognition of achievement.

As Burgess argued, the current system can’t capture achievement in multiple areas of interest to students and employers – curricular, co-curricular and extra-curricular – and many employers could be missing out on the skills and experience of potential recruits as a result.

Urgent, radical reform to replace the current degree classification system with a more detailed set of information will both persuade employers that graduates are a good bet for their recovery, and move us away from a rat race that’s obsessed with proving that some graduates are better than others, rather than describing what makes each graduate special.

Even if you don’t agree that we owe students a fee refund, we surely owe them that.

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