Graduation season is upon us – as narratives of overcoming adversity, realising ambitions and building confidence fill the cathedrals, conference centres and lecture halls.
But how many students are still shaking with nerves in the audience as they face the prospect of crossing the stage in front of hundreds of their peers?
Universities are shaping the next workforce – and yet the majority of those CVs won’t mention that they might never have had to do a presentation, turn up to their group work project or have sat in most seminars with their camera turned off and their hand perpetually down.
During the pandemic, we made important allowances and offered a supportive curriculum that provided mitigation and alternative options for those who needed it. And in many ways, the way in which Covid caused those efforts to become normalised is a great thing.
But we also owe it to the next generation to make sure they’re leaving university with the social capital and confidence to walk comfortably into an office environment and engage with everyone across the ladder of lived experience right off the bat.
The pandemic effect
Whisper it, but sometimes it felt like most of the fresh faced 18-year-olds who struggled to navigate the one way system at freshers’ fairs last year had actually just finished their GCSE’s, not A Levels.
The toll of undertaking education from home alone – without the opportunity to brush shoulders with their mates coming out of an exam hall, or even build a relationship with their teachers who finally had a class of engaged students who had actually chosen to study their subject – really showed.
And the results should worry us. This year there have been lecture halls on every campus stacked with students who don’t know how to start up a conversation with the person sat next to them. There were emails waiting to be sent, the cursor flashing at the start of a sentence, that the struggling student didn’t know how to word.
Every new bit of research on students’ mental health confirms it – the majority of UK university students now report having some form of mental health issue, with anxiety top of the lists.
Yet it sometimes feels like universities have clung to that “adult” thing – denying the need for a legal duty of care towards students – without taking the steps to ensure that students are able to grow, and glow, up.
The duty to deliver
This question is whether or not the next generation is actually being taught how to interact and be comfortable in their own skin – by the institutions that claim to prepare students to be the workforce and citizens of the future. Do they even have it in them to deliver that?
They have to if they’re claiming to.
As fast as pedagogy adapted to online learning, it is still reliant on students engaging with a level of confidence that we can’t be assured of anymore. There’s a cap on how much benefit a cohort of 28 can get from the one or two students who are always willing to answer the question and have the discussion.
There’s also a cap on how much benefit those one or two students can give to their peers if they’re the sole representatives. And that’s what happens – we create pipelines from confident student to course representative or project lead to student leader.
Universities love them – someone finally who is engaged and speaks up! But how much can those students, who have always felt okay talking to their “seniors” and don’t mind challenging in front of a crowd, truly represent every individual on campus, as they’re often asked to do?
Do they speak for the international student with English as a second language who hasn’t heard back from the visa team in three weeks? Do they speak for the eldest child who is the sole family carer and provider and is trying to balance commuting to campus twice a week alongside the school run?
Students who have felt too nervous to turn their camera on, or put their hand up, or attend a town hall meeting, or join the student council, or have never understood how democratic structures might impact them because no one’s ever told them – these are the students who get left out of the conversations if we only listen to the ones who speak up.
Higher education tells itself that it is the perfect platform on which to make this change. And careers services are overflowing with resources on CVs and interview practice to sell to employers the change. But having something to sell starts long before university.
You can start to rack up social capital from school, if you’re being told about it. That divide between private and state schools, the hidden advantage granted to those who can afford it, remains in the air in many universities.
Networking opportunities, interview practice, alumni meet ups – those are the benefits of going to schools that can afford the extra resource to put these options together. They won’t be mentioned anywhere in a job application – but they come through in an interview.
So if university can do anything, it can start to level the playing field.
And as the mainstreaming of generative AI causes PVCs for education everywhere to panic about bringing assessment criteria in line with a technology moving quicker than their working groups, the problems it causes may be the solution to the crisis in confidence.
Once you accept that detecting AI is a zero-sum arms race, you have to embrace more assessment variation beyond the standard. Essays and formulas and lit reviews can be developed at the push of a button – and to avoid the self-perpetuating stupidity of using AI to detect AI, the right way to beat the trend is to remove the need for it altogether.
Finding ways to make assessment more authentic, where students are present, offers opportunities for universities to teach not just the curriculum, but instil genuine confidence in students.
Presentations, projects, performances and pioneering the application of their new knowledge in a community or with another discipline takes students higher.
As long as alternatives are provided and accessibility is considered carefully, there’s a chance to use the advent of AI as a return to the engagement and participation that we took for granted just a few years ago.
Becoming a graduate
There’s value beyond undermining ChatGPT too. When properly supported, students graduate actually having gained skills in group work, or presenting and thinking on the spot; lecturers get more engaged students willing to speak up in discussions; universities tell the truth on their prospectuses when they say they produce graduates ready for the working world; and students really do gain confidence rather than just satisfaction.
If authentic assessment sounds hard to scale, let’s do less assessing. If we need to change structures, or systems, or workload models to deliver it, we need to try. If the odd “support service” needs to be rationalised to fund it, maybe we have to go there too.
Because when doing well at university involves being more communicative, creative and confident, that twenty seconds on stage doesn’t become so intimidating – but rather a chance to actually wave thanks to their support in the crowd and meet the Vice Chancellor’s eyes as they shake hands.
Either that, or we continue to wilfully ignore the growing crisis that has left students in higher education a bit too nervous and embarrassed to even consider putting their hand up with a question.