What happened at The Secret Life of Students?



  • What have we learned?

    It’s been quite a day. The iconic venue has helped, and the Wonkhe team (Katie and Matt in particular) have helped a very busy and complex event run nearly seamlessly. AMMOSHE, AULA, Achievability and Trendence provided the support that make it all happen

    But what we’ve really experienced is diversity – the diversity of students and their voices, and the diversity of approaches to understand what students are saying. It is easy to think in lazy stereotypes, but to do so says more about an imagined past than what is happening on around campus now.

    As delegates leave, we hope they’ll take with them both memories of a fascinating event and key insights to take back to their role and implement. We’ll be continuing the “secret life of students” all week on the site, so please do read and comment. Let’s make the secret life of students become the worst kept secret in the UK.


    5 years ago
    What have we learned?
  • For the rest of their lives

    What do careers look like for today’s students? Is “employability” a dated concept or an essential to be inserted into the curriculum? What are students looking for from employers, and how can universities (and their regulation) help or hinder their future success out in the world?

    Aaron Porter from IDP introduced Mike Grey (Gradconsult), Dasha Karzunina (Group GTI), and Elaine Boyes (AGCAS) in the day’s final session.

    Mike Grey

    Most employers are “degree agnostic” – most people go into roles not necessarily related to their degree but employers value the skills gained by students studying to (undergraduate) degree level.

    There is no “magic bullet” – but some panaceas are presented as such. One example is the sandwich placement. There is an impact on students from non-traditional backgrounds – we’ve seen a massive increase in the number of students enrolling onto sandwich placements. But there is not enough local demand from employers to take students for that sandwich year.

    Students are as likely to speak to academic staff as they are to career staff about their career. And it must be working in some way – 87.5% of leavers said they were satisfied with their career today (three-and-a-half years out from graduation) a statistic that doesn’t get a lot of media coverage. As a sector, we deliver some great outcomes in a challenging and evolving market

    Elaine Boyes, AGCAS

    This year we have the lowest level of graduate unemployment since 1977/78. There has been a slight increase in the percentage working in the “gig economy” – with the vast majority of these in the retail sector.

    Graduates are less mobile than we thought – just under half both study and work in their home region, and surprisingly few – given the dominant narrative – work in London.

    Overwhelmingly, graduates are likely to be in graduate-level employment, and they are likely to work in a city in their home region. Most students start university not knowing what they want to do, some leave university still not knowing.


    Are employers interested in being ethical, and does it lead to better outcomes for their business as well as for students?

    Dasha presented findings of the Ethics Survey. Bluntly, students care – their awareness on companies’ ethical practices has likely increased, and a sizeable proportion of students said it was important to them that their employer is ethical.

    She described students as a “labraphant” in this respect – like a labrador, loyal to their brands/causes but also like an elephant – they have a long memory. Things that cause a stir include tax evasion or avoidance, and a gender pay gap. Things that don’t seem to have as much of an impact are things like zero-hour contracts, or having a stance (either way) on Brexit.

    Seventy two percent of students felt working with an ethical employer is important for their CV – and 54% of students felt they would receive more training and do more interesting work if working for an ethical employer. However, they also expected to receive lower pay working for an ethical company.

    So there is a “morality premium” – 40% of students expect more money if they are working for an unethical employer, which comes to around £5.6k extra per person.

    In conclusion for employers, ethics need to be a key part of the story. Understanding student values and aligning those with the values of the employer is very important for universities to do.

    5 years ago
    For the rest of their lives
  • Researching students for impact

    Student surveys are the tried-and-tested way to take the temperature of how students are feeling – social media analysis is a relatively recent set of techniques to take an alternate view. But neither of these methods are without (easily avoidable) pitfalls – and relying on only one approach may amplify these issues.

    Liz Austen of Sheffield Hallam University has written for Wonkhe before on some of the key things to consider when designing survey research. She focused today on her student voices work, that takes a creative and innovative approach to the use of authentic materials to challenge the orthodoxy of pseudo-quantitative approaches in driving understanding and student ownership. She noted in particular the methodological biases that exist in policymaking and practice – meaning that important hidden voices remain concealed.

    In Liz’ words, “data privilege exists” – there is a quantitative skew, in the sense that the default position providers take to getting student data is still a focus group and a student survey. She challenged practitioners to be more innovative in accessing student stories – we should fight against the “normalisation of quantitative metrics”.

    Alex Griffiths from Statica Research described the QAA-commissioned work using student social media postings as a means of capturing insights. He noted that such data is a good predictor of more established quality measures like the NSS and TEF. Timely identification of student concerns – even hygiene issues like transport and wireless internet – can save significant reputational damage, and social media is particularly useful in highlighting these problems in real time.

    Alex highlighted that, though surveys can offer valuable insights, they can be slow to identify emerging issues and they tend to only answer the specific questions asked rather than providing a broader overview of contexts.

    Michelle Morgan from Bournemouth University is known to Wonkhe readers for her analysis of student concerns, particularly those affecting post-graduates and around mental health. She demonstrated how a simple pre-arrival academic survey can be used to make changes in the experience of a cohort before they arrive, rather than after they leave – while also correcting common misconceptions and managing expectations. She recommended we make learning the focus of interactions, and design surveys carefully to improve response rates and collect actionable information that can have a huge impact on student lives.

    Michelle emphasised the importance of collecting meaningful data about student expectations so we are not making assumptions about what students “should” know instead of evidence about what they actually do know about what their university experience might look like. She suggested involving students in the writing of these surveys as a way to improve survey design and response rates.

    To truly understand students a single source of data will not cut it. Emphasising authentic voices, timely interactions, and focusing on learning can get us some of the way to a more complete picture.

    5 years ago
    Researching students for impact
  • The student environment

    When NUS asked Philip Augar to speak to sabbatical officers at an APPG on Students meeting, the topic they were most keen to address with him was not fees or even increasing maintenance (although these both were raised): it was accommodation costs. Average rents are increasing faster than student loans, profit margins are huge, and it’s difficult for many students to keep up.

    With moving away such an integral part of the way HE is sold by universities and housing providers, students can find it difficult when their experience of university doesn’t match the ideal. And living at home may provide no respite as bus fares have increased at twice the rate of inflation while services in many areas are reduced. David Malcolm from NUS argued that we need to make institutional affordability strategies a mandatory part of APPs or their equivalents, and use other regulatory levers where appropriate.

    We are all increasingly aware of the more visible side of student mental health and wellbeing support, but how might we better understand the wider, perhaps invisible aspects of the university experience that may be supportive or harmful for students?  Rachel Piper from Student Minds offered a perspective from recent work on how co-producing strategies with students can throwing light on less explicit support mechanisms, such as the invisible front line of Academic Tutors.

    Rachel explained how, through interviews with academics, Student Minds found that assisting students suffering from mental ill health has become an inevitable part of their role as an academic. Though academics are not expected to provide this support as part of their job description, and they do not receive any formal training in signposting or the limits of their role, students tend to trust their academic tutors and tend to prefer speaking to someone they have a pre-existing relationship. Rachel emphasised that, to ensure we are seeing what is invisible, we need to look across the whole university – we need to listen to what students and staff are saying and ask more about it so we are basing what we do in policy terms on true understanding and not an elevated perspective of what’s really going on.

    Jenny Shaw from Unite Students highlighted fresh qualitative research carried out by Youthsight with 15 applicants and 36 first year students – so fresh that it only came out a few days ago. This research lifts the lid on three student stereotypes that the media love:

    • The Careerist – We all know that students’ major motivation – and major concern while at university – is their employability. And some students do go to university with a specific career path in mind. These are our careerists and that is our first stereotype. But they are in the minority. Students are seeing university as a route to their security and future happiness. It is about reducing risk and increasing their sense of safety in an uncertain world. Students crave safety, because they are anxious about the future.
    • The Activist – Applicants come into university with strong beliefs, most want a kinder and fairer world. And many plan on acting out these beliefs at university However most students don’t get involved in ‘formal’ activism even though they care about issues. Barriers include: time, motivation, confidence. Students bring strong beliefs to university, where they develop them further. This raises the question, should all this learning in non-academic spaces be better recognised as part of the learning experience – part of the value that university brings? How does it pull through to the curriculum?
    • The Snowflake – We have a student mental health crisis. Students seem to need a lot more support than they used to. Here is our fragile, snowflake student – our final stereotype. But they’re not what you think. Students describe themselves as independent, but not adults. What’s the middle ground between childhood – support from trusted people who know you well – and adulthood – doing it on your own? How can those working with students create a useful bridge between the two? How can trust and continuity of support be built into services?
    5 years ago
    The student environment
  • Minding and closing the gaps

    In this session, we looked at the gaps in student recruitment, achievement and retention that often go overlooked, be it due to a lack of robust data on these groups of students, a lack of media coverage or the size and spread of the groups of students affected.

    The Office for Students’ Head of Access and Participation funding and programmes Sarah Howls detailed some of the groups that OfS is prioritising in its new key performance measures, with particular focus on access to postgraduate taught masters programmes. She identified that there is an issue whereby we do not have robust national data on certain groups, such as care leavers and estranged students, but research identifies that they face barriers to accessing and remaining in higher education. Sarah explained how OfS’ expectation that providers undertake an assessment of their performance will help address this issue by having providers identify all the groups for which there are gaps and at what point in the student lifecycle these appear.

    Simon Lewis, Head of Planning at Middlesex University, presented some of the university’s original research on the demographics and experiences of its large portion of commuter students. Simon explained why, given the link between commuting and lower retention – particularly for some disadvantaged groups of students – not supporting these students could have damaging implications for the government’s social mobility and productivity goals. Middlesex’s research suggests that commuting makes it harder for students to gain value from their experience in higher education, and that students are as likely to feel part of a local community as they are the student community – which has interesting implications for universities’ relationships with their students.

    In conversation, the Open University’s Liz Marr, Interim Pro-Vice-Chancellor (Students), and Cath Brown, President of the OU Students’ Association, focused on interventions that could begin to tackle these gaps. Liz and Cath first looked at whether there is any “typical” mould of an Open University student, before interrogating the truth of widely accepted narratives about which types of students are more likely to leave higher education. They then considered the role of different parties within the university and their ability to bring a sense of community and engagement to develop resilience among the groups of students who need more focused support. They shared stories of amazing student achievement – demonstrating the breath and variety of those studying HE in the UK.

    5 years ago
    Minding and closing the gaps
  • Great expectations

    AMOSSHE’s Jayne Aldridge introduced Nick Hillman of HEPI, Alex Bols of GuildHE, Ed March (CEO, Middlesex University Student Union, and Sarah Miller, UCAS.

    Nick noted, from HEPI/HEA research, that there is still a significant expectation gap around sixth form students going to HE. Changing both incorrect student expectations and the way HE is offered will help.

    The question now is how can we make students from radically different backgrounds integrate into one university – Nick highlighted how the NUS helped former president Meghan Dunn. As possible solutions, he suggested better information on where fee income goes, a better understanding on what independent learning means.

    Alex reminded us that engagement had been a key policy theme in HE for a decade. His research has been on the effectiveness of student representatives – the idea has not gone away at a national policy level, as exemplified in the student panel at OfS. At an institutional level the way in which staff are engaged, and the overall effectiveness of institutional, departmental and faculty level committees in driving through decisions are key modifiers. But only 55% of students felt that student representations were effective.

    Ed took us through the student perspective on value for money, as set out in the OfS panel research. Students really value what impacts them at the time of study, and are less interested in longer term impacts. He emphasised that students are uninformed about the overall cost of HE – the focus in common complaints is on contact hours and quality, and cost transparency. Hygiene factors are key.

    Sarah, speaking from UCAS perspective, talked about the importance of creating understanding earlier on – before the application process begins. Students apply to university to study – but also to meet new people and learn new skills. Student reviews are something that is valued by prospective students, but as are parents – the prospectus is still very important for that reasons.

    Providers also need to address student fears – more than a third of students are concerned about moving up to higher education. But 90% of students said that university increased their confidence.

    Jayne asked each speaker for one key intervention:

    • Alex: engaging students in the university experience more widely.
    • Ed: we need to be honest that the reality of HE is at odds with (old fashioned) wider cultural ideas
    • Sarah: Students whan realism – warts and all.
    • Nick: Students should follow their heart and not their head, and think as much about non academic experiences as academic ones.

    During questions Felicity Mitchell, the independent adjudicator for HE, asked about the experiences of international students. Nick Hillman implied that cross-subsidy meant that the income related to international students was not being spent on them. Ed felt that the sector had run out of new ideas on supporting international students – something we need to fix urgently.

    5 years ago
    Great expectations
  • Generation Z goes to uni

    Millennials are old news. Gen Z are the new focus of attention, and often wild speculation.

    But how should our universities, environments, policies, and curriculum adapt to best meet the needs of this newest generation to come to campus? What do SUs need to know to best engage and connect with students from Generation Z? Meghan Grace, co-author of Generation Z Goes to College, argued that although some characteristics may look similar to the millennial generation, Generation Z brings a whole new set of attributes and experiences to higher education.

    They identify as loyal and responsible as well as thoughtful and compassionate. They see the world’s problems as theirs to solve and approach life in a we-centric manner. This veers a bit from what we have seen from Millennials who, like Generation Z, care deeply about giving back to the community but do so in short bursts of intense volunteerism rather than how Generation Z prefers to engage – with the community by addressing root causes of social ills.

    Based on integrated research findings from nearly 300 sources, Meghan’s book is a must-read for anyone that works with or for students in higher education.

    Hannah Shrimpton from MORI discussed existing and new analysis and research on Gen Z, to provide a better understanding of the initial signals on how they will be different to, or the same as, previous generations.

    Much generational is poorly done, aimed more at getting headlines or hits for simplistic interpretations of difference than providing true insight. This is not only annoying, it’s a genuine risk: as MORI’s recent report Millennial Myths and Realities outlined, these clichéd views can take hold, colouring the perception of a whole cohort and leading to bad decisions.

    The truth is there are seldom big swings between generations. Instead we tend to see more gradual change, driven by some real differences in context. This is, in fact, a very good test of claimed generational differences: we should ask ourselves ‘why?’. What could have driven this shift? If it can’t be traced back to big, measurable changes in the environment, we should be cautious: whole cohorts of people do not magically transform. But they do show interesting characteristics and differences.

    5 years ago
  • Chris Skidmore

    Chris Skidmore was delighted to be here – on a very difficult day for the government.

    Students matter to universities, so whatever matters to students should matter to universities. A diverse student body means diverse students needs, Chris has made it a personal mission to look at what institutions are doing to support them.He challenged providers to improve student experience across three key stages – transition, participation, and progression.


    He flagged the first meeting of the transition taskforce, on the 1st April next week – and noted the key role that providers can play in managing transitions for international students. Transitions happen throughout the HE experiences – the transfer to second year is often in parallel with a move to privately rented accommodation. New regulations highlighted by the minister means that it easier for students to hold bad landlords to account.

    He also highlighted partnerships between universities and large-scale private accommodation providers – under no circumstances should these be making an obscene profit from students.

    And the transition between undergraduate and post-graduate provision can feel like the transition into employment – students need consistent support as they enter the research workforce.

    The most shocking statistic that Chris has encountered as minister – just 6% of care leavers go to university, and just half of these complete a qualification.


    Chris highlighted the experiences of students dealing with physical and mental disabilities, highlighting good practices around the sector. He hopes to work with colleagues in the Department of Health to provide better support for student mental health, and praised the work of Student Minds in leading the development of the Mental Health student.

    But the provision of support is only one part of what needs to be done. Providers need to be clearer about hidden costs: textbooks, visits, equipment, and some are already beginning to do this up front. Students can expect that their grievances will be taken seriously, and have recourse to the Office of the Independent Adjudicator if they feel otherwise.

    Student protection plans – supporting students in the event of provider financial failure – are a regulatory requirement in England, but it was “eye opening” that most students do not know that they exist or know what they are for. This is a missed opportunity.

    On essay mills, we will support students if students support themselves. Skidmore flagged Damian Hinds’ weekend intervention calling for tech giants to help ensure that essay mills do not have the ability to advertise or take payments.


    The availability of good quality data is a key strength of HE. His Data Steering Group looks at the safe use of data to inform policy, both at a national a local level. In particular he flagged the use of learning analytics as a means to identify students at risk.

    Not all students will prioritise a high paid career in London – next week Chris will reveal the two winners from the app competition that aims to provide data to students in order to make informed choices about their future.


    Chris Skidmore has not seen the Augar report, but he hopes to see recommendations that will create a seamless system for post-compulsory education. He wouldn’t be drawn on questions around maintenance.

    He does not think there is a “free speech crisis” in UK HE. The “one or two” examples that are picked up by the press are not indicative of the wider sector. He praised Sam Gyimah’s work on publishing a clear guide to the law in this area for students.

    The minister praised student unions for leading the way on national policy debates, particularly around the civic university movement and on mental health.


    5 years ago
    Chris Skidmore
  • Only the lonely

    Student mental health has arguably become the dominant student experience policy issue – ministerial round tables, surveys, charters and initiatives from almost all of the sector bodies and umbrella groups have sought to shift this wicked policy problem into a space where the sector can learn from others and deploy interventions. Yet for all the activity, we still don’t know much about the causes, or fully understand the problem.

    In 2018, the Office for National Statistics’ published a report on children and young people’s experiences of loneliness – so for our major spring event this year, and to mark the launch of our work with students’ unions, we commissioned Trendence UK to tell us more about loneliness on campus and to test some hypotheses about what could be causing it.

    The results were stark. Some 16% of students said they felt lonely on a daily basis, and another third said they felt the same weekly. Only 77% of students were able to agree that if they needed help, there would be people who would be there for them. And 17% of students said that they do not consider themselves to have any true friends at university – rising to 20% for (non EU) international students. In our massified system, it looks many students are simply getting lost.

    Unsurprisingly, loneliness, friendship, wellbeing and concern about mental health are all linked in the data. But we also wanted to understand the link between these issues and taking part in activities on campus. Involvement in extra-curricular activity – societies, sports, representation and events – all had a positive association with friendship and positive mental health and wellbeing.

    There are a host of policy areas that the findings raise discussion on, and both throughout the day at Secret Life and on the site all week we’ll be looking at some of these. Often the responsibility for creating social activity falls on SUs, but it is clear that social activity at course level and with programmes is crucial, particularly for day trippers and those considered (erroneously, these days) to be “non traditional”. And it is clear that many of the issues surrounding widening participation are just as applicable to extra-curricular student activities as they are to academic programmes.

    We also sought student views on how providers and their SUs might go about addressing these issues, and a host of representative comments are in the research briefing that is on the main site today. Crucially, most of the posited solutions are simple – they just need us to notice.

    5 years ago
  • We’re off!

    Jim Dickinson kicks off our “all killer, no filler” day. If you also want to follow along on twitter the hashtag for the day is #secretlife.

    Though this will be a fast-paced event the one thing we are explicitly not offering is quick solutions. Rather, this is about starting a complex and evidence informed conversation about policy.

    The first part of that evidence is our survey, conducted with Trendence. You can read more about our findings in Jim’s article, here. Sixteen percent of students admit to feeling lonely during their university experience compared with around 9% for the general young population. There are concerning statistics about how much support students feel they have – around 16% of students feel like they don’t have any true friends at university (20% of international students).

    Students that participate in activities tend to score better on standard well being measures and have more friends. And there is a visible link between students who report mental health issues and those who report feelings of loneliness. Though we don’t yet fully understand the causation there is a clear link between low participation in activities, loneliness and lack of friends, and reported mental health difficulties.

    The kind of things students ask for in plain text are fairly simple to implement. Events to go to and people to talk to.

    5 years ago
  • ‘Rogue’ landlords must stop exploiting students

    To coincide with his appearance later today at the event, universities and science minister Chris Skidmore has launched an intervention on student housing.

    Rogue private landlords providing poor and substandard living conditions for students will be warned over exploiting learners by the minister as new regulations come into in force that give tenants the power to make them face justice in court.

    Speaking later today, the Minister will hit out at private landlords who do not fulfill their responsibilities, resulting in some students encountering poor conditions such as a lack of heating or hot water.

    Some figures have even suggested that one in five students live in ‘squalor’ and reported mice, slugs, and other vermin infesting their accommodation.

    New regulations came into force last week empowering students and renters across the country, giving them the right to take landlords to court where they fail to address serious defects in homes such as mould, damp and safety hazards.

    The Minister will describe the regulations as a ‘milestone’ for student renters, helping to raise standards in student accommodation and hold landlords more accountable for their actions and responsibilities.

    He is due to say

    Students’ time at university should be some of the best days of their lives and yet I have heard appalling stories of students living in terrible conditions, which can affect their studies and even their mental health.

    While there are many landlords who do take their responsibilities seriously, for too long rogue private landlords have been exploiting vulnerable students by failing to provide even basic standards of living.

    Now the time is up for these landlords making a profit from shoddy accommodation. These new regulations make landlords more accountable, helping to improve standards, and students should use their powers to make sure landlords face justice where they’re not fulfilling their responsibilities.”

    A survey by NUS and Unipol found that in 2018, 40 per cent of UK students who rented privately lived with damp and mould on their walls. The same survey found that over a third of students said poor living conditions made them feel anxious or depressed (36%).

    To make sure that students receive adequate accommodation when renting privately, Unipol and Universities UK have created codes to set standards for practice and conduct, which landlords can sign up to, to make sure standards are met.

    The universities Minister is

    calling on all private landlords renting properties to students to sign up to these codes to help to ensure they act responsibly, meet standards of practice and have a clear complaints process”.

    He will also encourage all universities to consider the “social value” of contracting out services, such as accommodation, to help make sure the wider community benefits from these decisions.

    5 years ago
  • Student voices on mental health support

    As part of our research on student loneliness that we’ll launch on Monday, we asked students what could be done to support students struggling with their mental health. Unsurprisingly, investing in counselling staff was a common refrain, but students identified a range of other suggestions related to both individual support and peer support. A preview sample of student comments is below.

    Maybe reach out more instead of waiting for the people to go and see them plus more resources going into student support especially for health and well-being in general. The demand of the psychological help department of the university is so high that if you have a small problem, they are not going to see you and you will probably need to wait for more than 6 months to be able to have a chance to talk to some mental health professionals.

    Have regular forums/meetings online or in real life where students can drop by or leave anonymous messages and receive helpful advice and or comfort.

    Provide informal support groups so students can talk about their mental health problems without having to see a processional counsellor

    I believe the tutor’s observation and support are quite important.

    The University has helped but could do better by asking how students are coping with the academic side of things and the non academic side of things

    Maybe a lecture mid semester when people are starting to feel the pressure of deadlines.

    Encourage more activities outside the confines of the course and make the timetables flexible to accommodate other engagements. Most people with mental health issues will not go to a support group or contact someone to get support, they need to sought out. This comes from increasing awareness among lecturers, small group teaching sessions and offering that support along the way- being friendly and open with students in a way that makes them feel comfortable and build a rapport with them

    Having tutors/wardens who actively check on students and have a relationship with them, more involvement with students so people don’t go unnoticed.

    Provide helplines for specific mental health issues eg. Anxiety Someone feeling depressed due to homesickness/loneliness may think that ringing a helpline is too extreme and therefore won’t do it

    Relaxation areas, video tours of buildings so people with anxiety can see an area before going for layout.

    Be more approachable. Of so many people I’ve spoken to with regards to this, people have said they refuse to speak to somebody at university. If people do not want to speak to somebody at university, something isn’t being done right. Process needs to be looked at in order to fully make people aware and give them trust and confidence to actually go and talk people.

    They could offer more help when you ask for it and not just say ‘we can’t do much unless you apply for disabled student allowance’. They could also make it easier to make it known to people (such as personal tutors or lecturers) so that if anything were to go wrong there would be more understanding.

    I have had only one meeting with my tutor once out of my whole school year and that was concerning my attendance, tutors don’t really care unless something concerning pops up and affects their records. My tutor does not support me and if I have issues, I would rather not share with her because she wouldn’t care anyway, which makes me feel my University/ SU wouldn’t care too, so I’d rather not talk to anyone.

    5 years ago
  • We’ll be here on Monday

    At this event, we’ll rethink the student experience – bringing together sector leaders and managers, as well as student leaders and students’ union managers, to get a rounded picture of the state of the student condition in 2019.

    What do generational shifts mean for campus culture, teaching and learning, and student support? How can we close the expectations gap? Which bits of the student body do we miss when we talk about “students”? What do students want from their career – and what do employers want? And how can data and research help drive effective policy that improves students’ experiences and outcomes?

    We’ll feature all the major findings into students from the past year and launch exciting new research into belonging, friendship and social capital on campus. So do look in on Monday to catch up with all the action.

    5 years ago
    We’ll be here on Monday