The autumn term is under way and the barrage of media stories about risky student parties is dying down. So now it’s time to find out if students are able to adjust to the radically different experience on offer this year – or if the sector is facing a looming student engagement and wellbeing crisis, with serious implications for retention.
The risks have already been anticipated to some extent. When universities and students’ unions prepared for the term ahead, they did more than overhaul the physical campus.
Academic induction periods were extended to help incoming and returning students prepare for the new way of learning that would be required, and students’ unions extended their welcome activities beyond the conventional Freshers’ week. Recognising that even the best-laid plans can fall foul of the realities of student life, universities have become extra-responsive, setting up hotlines and regular opportunities for students to raise issues.
Though the shift is undoubtedly painful, there are signs that students seem to be coping reasonably well with the new world order. “There hasn’t been this mass sense of ‘we all want to leave,’” says Caroline Dangerfield, deputy chief executive at Bath Spa University students’ union. “Students are mostly cracking on and recognising it’s difficult. Everyone’s been really buoyed by how positive most of our students are – it makes the months of relentless hard work feel worth it.”
Some students’ unions have seen significant increases in engagement as a result of the pandemic. “At this point we’re in week four, and club and society membership will soon exceed their total for last year. We have also had a large volume of students engaging with our virtual events, often hundreds and sometimes thousands tuning in,” says Simon To, leadership development and change manager at Students’ Union UCL.
Clearly, many students are making the best of the opportunities available to them for social connection. Caroline ascribes this to good planning: “Lots of clubs and societies are doing in person things, because we did all the risk assessments, and students are really appreciative of having those things to do.”
A threat looms
But student representatives are also mindful of the threat that Covid poses to student wellbeing. The National Union of Students has repeatedly called on government to do more to recognise the impact of Covid-19 on the mental health of students and young people.
“We’re hearing from people telling us this experience is draining, it’s anxiety-inducing, and some students are questioning why they’ve been brought back to university,” says Roseanne Steffen, student living and sustainability officer at the University of Sussex students’ union. Roseanne is a sufferer of “long Covid”, and reports that some students with similar symptoms have met with scepticism or disbelief from doctors. “We need to think about managing pace, and work out what supportive and inclusive education looks like,” she says. “And it’s hard to discuss with management when they’re under so much financial pressure.”
In Wales, the government has recognised the additional costs involved in putting student support in place with a windfall grant of £10 million to universities and students’ unions. No such funding has been forthcoming from Westminster.
Even if there’s not an immediate crisis, students’ unions are alert to the practical considerations that could impinge on students’ ability to engage in learning. There’s also a lot of anticipation of the trajectory of a term that is known for its emotional ups and downs.
Maxwell Stewart, VP Student Voice at Oxford Brookes students’ union, raises the concern that digital poverty could affect some students’ ability to persist with course work, and mean they fall behind. Rent is also an area of focus for students’ unions – in normal times demand for housing would mean that a student hoping to leave their student housing contract would be released by their university. Though some universities are in a financial position to be flexible, not all are, especially given the additional costs of Covid security and student services. And, of course, private rented accommodation is a whole other issue.
“The Christmas period is probably going to be quite bleak,” predicts Simon. “People have their first round of assessments; with a whole term passing that’s more or less half the year gone, and they’ll reflect on having spent half the year looking at a screen. There’s the whole looming thing of where you’ll be and whether you can go home or not. For those that can go home they’ll have the experience of being back with family and friends, talking to people regularly – so in January they are even more likely to be homesick.”
Get in early
Concerns about the state of student mental health are cutting through in the national debate, with mental health campaigner James Murray appearing recently on Radio Four’s Today programme to warn of risks to student mental health of isolation and urge universities to work to spot warning signs and intervene as early as possible, noting that January can be a particularly difficult time for students who are struggling.
Many universities will be gearing up for, or in the middle of, the annual post-welcome student survey – almost certainly this year with added “how are you doing?” included. Survey data might provide a snapshot of the general state of students’ wellbeing, but it can’t provide a robust indication of where an intervention might be required to support students’ mental health. For that you need real-time data on how students are engaging.
“I genuinely feel for students – it’s a really tough time to be a student right now,” says Jo Midgley, pro vice chancellor for student experience at UWE, Bristol, where an extended induction focused on developing learning community and helped to prepare students for the realities of blended learning, as well as for the possibility that the learning environment could change in response to local or national lockdowns. “We know it’s going to be a very different experience but it can still be a rich experience and we want to communicate that there’s light at the end of the tunnel and we can get through this together.”
For the past two years the university has developed its use of learning analytic data to track student engagement and identify changing patterns that indicate students who might need a check-in to support their wellbeing. Now the system has evolved to support the university’s approach to student wellbeing during Covid-19.
“We know anxiety levels are high, and part of that is Covid and concerns over whether it’s safe to come to campus,” says Jo. “From this year we’ve introduced attendance recording – we can spot patterns of engagement behaviour through the VLE, but now if students aren’t coming onto campus when we expect them to, we can reach out and check they are OK. We are relying far more than usual on making contact, reaching out, picking up the phone and having a conversation – because that’s the most important thing for students’ wellbeing.”
“There’s so much more opportunity for a plan to be put in place if universities get in early,” says Amber Cowburn, adolescent mental health expert and founder of Working Well, a mental health consultancy. “That’s what I expect a twenty-first century university to be doing – to understand student engagement and intervene early.”
The risks of Covid-19 for students’ mental health may not so much about those who already have diagnosed conditions, but for those who may experience their first bout of mental ill-health while at university, and who have fewer established coping strategies. These students may be less likely to actively seek support, especially if they are concerned with being perceived as struggling academically, which is where a well-timed phone call to check in can make an enormous difference.
Amber reports that universities can struggle with an organisational silos, with students passed from one service or source of advice to another, with limited information sharing. “Every university is pouring resource into approaches and interventions – that’s all well and good, but you need the whole roadmap to work to link up at system level,” she says. A centralised system of data collection and approach to checking on students who have been flagged as at risk is simply good communication: “Not knowing if a student isn’t engaging isn’t babysitting students, it’s just being informed and not letting students fall between the cracks.”
Look out for each other
James Murray said on Radio Four last week, “This is the time for us to look out for each other and give each other hope.” His words highlight the importance of peer connections and support during tough moments. Universities and students’ unions are mindful of the role of students in helping each other to cope.
“We’re trying to put our reps on the front foot, because we know lots of students will turn to peers for information,” says Simon. Caroline echoes that thought: “The worry is about the people who don’t show up to stuff. We could do more on encouraging students to look out for each other and if they have concerns about housemates or friends then raise that.”
At UWE, Bristol, there’s a coaching pilot in train, where students are encouraged to form groups within programmes explicitly to help them support each other and reflect on their own experience in a structured way. Though not every student will engage with that particular initiative, the hope is that with different support mechanisms in place there will be something available for every student. Initiatives like these point to the way that Covid pandemic could accelerate universities’ trajectory towards a more human, caring culture.
On the January return to campus, Jo acknowledges how much is unknown and subject to change. All the university can do it this stage is put students in as strong a position mentally and emotionally to plan to return. “What we want to do is give students a sense of achievement. They go home early in the year and if they at that point don’t know what they got from their experience so far, it feels like it matters less if they stop. We want every student to understand why it matters for them, give them personal feedback on their progress, and establish that sense of a trajectory that’s worth keeping going on.”
This article is published in association with Solutionpath. Find out more about how Solutionpath supports universities to track student engagement. Join Wonkhe on 4 November at Wonkhe @ Home: Don’t Drop Out – averting a Covid retention crisis.