To support students at university we need to help them meet their basic needs

At Staffordshire University, Annabel Kiernan and Kierra Bunting have trialled a survey of basic student needs. Here's what they found

Annabel Kiernan is Pro Vice Chancellor (Academic) at Staffordshire University.

Kierra Bunting is Education Research and Evaluation Manager at Staffordshire University

The recent release of the sector NSS results and the Teaching Excellence Framework have amplified conversations within and across universities about excellence in academic delivery.

In particular, we have focused on the key measures which underpin these articulation of our relative performance. Universities pore over and analyse the often overwhelming wealth of data on both individual learners and module/course level metrics.

The context of a challenging narrative of low value degrees, of too many young people going to university (which is in part therefore an explanation of current skills’ gaps), cross-winds of discourse that the applied public sector professions should not require degree-level qualifications, and a return to pre-pandemic proportions of eighteen year olds accessing higher education, means that competition for students is fierce.

As well as the recruitment income challenge, there is the broader financial and inflationary pressure currently experienced by the sector – according to latest reporting the real value of the student fee has now dipped below £6,000 – at a time when universities have to do more to support retention, continuation and the success of their students.

And all this has come to bear particularly in the part of the sector with larger intakes of students who may have more transition, financial, and social capital support needs.

Student pressure

As well as the financial challenges to universities, there is a more generalised financial pressure for students: stemming from changes to student finance, their own cost of living pressures, and a post-pandemic legacy of fewer part time working opportunities in, for example, hospitality. Across the sector last year, additional investment was made in direct and indirect (food pantries, hygiene poverty support) hardship funding to support students to continue their studies. At Staffordshire University, for example, we put together an additional £500,000 investment package of this type of direct and indirect support.

Added to this is the pandemic and post-pandemic impact on students’ mental health and wellbeing and how those issues can and are exacerbated by this economic context. Although this is an experience shared by a wide diversity of students, students from non-traditional backgrounds who may be more vulnerable to household financial challenges can become precarious learners. Staffordshire University’s main campus is located in Stoke-on-Trent which has those city and regional challenges of economic opportunity and social mobility that the levelling up agenda was meant to address.

With a large local student intake, the university offers clear mechanisms of support and is in some cases filling the gaps of a lack of broader social and economic capital. In fact, this was one way in which Staffordshire University defined educational gains in the Teaching Excellence Framework – as a collective place-based outcome, alongside individual gains.

Looking at the twin impact of the pandemic and the financial context of the sector and its learners has surfaced both mental health and cost of living issues in more acute ways, but both financial and wellbeing challenges are emerging as sustained issues which we might more broadly describe as “insecurities”.

Beyond expectation

When young people enter higher education they are expected to adapt, succeed and thrive. Yet, beneath the surface of academic demands, lies an intricate web of challenges. But are we genuinely listening? Are we effectively interpreting the undercurrents that drive these issues?

In the face of increasing financial insecurity and rising living costs at all levels of society, it is vital that we understand how broader social and economic struggles are impacting on students’ basic needs. Staffordshire University’s recent pilot report of the Student Basic Needs Survey, inspired by work led by the Hope Center in US colleges, offers a revealing glimpse into these challenges. This study bypasses assumptions and directly questions students about the insecurities they face during their university life, such as food insecurity, financial struggles, and housing insecurity.

The results of the pilot are illuminating and offer some cause for concern. They hint at a profound vulnerability propelled by a range of insecurities which inevitably impact students’ wellbeing, mental health and academic engagement. The term “academic failure” is often used to capture a student’s non-continuation or withdrawal from university, but such a label could be misleading. In many instances, these challenges are not about academic potential, or aspiration, but rather the unforeseen hurdles and often very challenging circumstances students encounter along the way.

Concerning findings

Our findings confirmed that nearly all students (93 per cent) are worried about the cost of living, that maintenance loans are insufficient to meet students’ expenses and students are spending more time on campus where electricity is free.

The survey also revealed that food insecurity was also an issue affecting the majority of students, with nearly two thirds reporting going hungry at least once and one in 10 not eating at least once in the month because they couldn’t afford to.

The Basic Needs Survey also demonstrated that housing insecurity is hampering the student experience with 6.5 per cent of students reporting being homeless in the last 12 months and a quarter moving home between three and five times in a single year. Furthermore, we know that students experience poor quality housing and rely on low-cost accommodation in dangerous areas because they can’t afford better.

We have also learned that nearly two thirds of students are having to ask family or friends for help to cover food costs and pay bills and there is a strong reliance on social support to bridge financial gaps.

Aligning with genuine need

The responsibility is on us – educators and policymakers – to act on these findings. How? By developing and integrating targeted support interventions that address these insecurities. By innovating our teaching methods and delivery modes to align with the genuine needs of our students.

The importance of this responsibility is heightened in our present context. We live in a period punctuated by hyper-regulation, with higher education learners having faced significant external pressures, from the lingering effects of the pandemic to the cost-of-living crisis.

It’s not just about identifying the issues; it’s about gaining a comprehensive understanding of the authentic lifecycle of our students. As Staffordshire University broadens its survey to encompass more of its student population, the aim is clear: to harness evidence-based insights, advocate for sector-wide adoption of this crucial measure of basic needs, and consequently make informed, actionable, and impactful recommendations.

Basic needs insecurities are not mere statistics; they are barriers to education, social mobility and overall well-being. For many, their reality is marked by grappling with pressing insecurities related to food, housing, and finances. Addressing these fundamental needs is a prerequisite for ensuring they can focus on academic pursuits without undue stress. The higher education sector must prioritise students’ basic needs insecurities.

As we delve into the core challenges students face, it is clear our approach needs to extend beyond just academic metrics and learning analytics. They are not mere add-ons but foundational elements that determine a student’s ability to thrive in the university environment. It’s not just about academic success; it’s about success in life.

For more information, you can read the full report – Developing a UK measure of students’ basic needs: a pilot study

One response to “To support students at university we need to help them meet their basic needs

  1. Incisive study that recognises the full gamut of hard decisions that many potential and actual students are having to make on a daily basis. Requires a real shift in policy thinking to avoid ghettoising many young people. We need to accept that choices made by those with less economic and social capital, whilst appearing odd to the privileged, are often entirely logical within context.

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