Jim is an Associate Editor at Wonkhe

Livia Scott is Wonkhe's Community and Policy Officer

While you’ve been queuing to get back into the country with your duty free allowance, your piñata full of pins and your nasty stomach bug, we’ve been sat on the floor in the vestibule on the country’s ramshackle rail network with a bag of scented markers, Wonkhe branded fidget toys and multiple shapes of post-it notes – meeting, briefing training and listening to this year’s crop of students’ union officers.

So as a piece of public service, we thought we’d share our top ten observations and conclusions arising from these encounters here as the term gets going.

Every year meeting students’ chosen leaders is always a fascinating experience – the priorities and manifesto objectives shift subtly, the language and the lingo morph in ways that Jim finds it hard to keep up with, and even the way of thinking about higher education feels like it’s shifting under our feet.

All the usual caveats apply here – not all students’ unions are the same, not all student leaders share the same priorities and opinions, and student officers are in many ways the very opposite of “ordinary” students.

Nevertheless, listening carefully to the popular pick of the litter for coalmine canaries has generated some interesting themes to think about this year – and so hopefully at least some of the below is of use to people working in and around higher education.

One thing to say before we get into this (let’s call this the tenth) – vanishingly few student leaders we meet have ever reflected on their journey through HE before we speak to them. We consider it problematic that we survey the hell out of students but do little to understand their lives – and disappointing that student leaders (who will be drawing on their personal experiences to drive contributions to decision making) report spending most of the summer being asked to learn about their university’s “world” with seemingly little reciprocal interest in learning about students’ worlds.

1. Contact-free deliveries

This might seem a strange one to start with – but it has come up so often on our travels that it needs highlighting. This year when we asked student officers what students moan about, we almost every time heard that students are upset about email response times from academics. It’s interesting because we tend to obsess over whether unit hours of teaching are online or in-person, or synchronous or asynchronous – but maybe we have to think about wider contact between students and academic staff in these contexts too.

We’re not sure what’s going on here – is the volume of email increasing, or the capacity of academic staff to respond decreasing – or both? Are the expectations that students have on response times reasonable in an always-on, digital age – or completely unreasonable given the workloads and funding model? And if students aren’t as good at supporting each other “horizontally” as they used to be, does this inevitably mean increased demand for “vertical” support?

More research, as they say, is needed.

2. Blend me a hand

Tens of thousands of words have been spilled about blended learning, with endless polls, surveys and ministerial interventions – but in many ways it feels like we’re no further forward in our understanding of what students want than the first surveys of Summer 2020. It turns out that when you ask students if they want their learning and teaching to be online or in-person, the most common answer is “yes”. So as a result, blended sounds right, doesn’t it?

Not really. What’s clear when you talk to student leaders and actually actively listen (rather than fishing for the tick for your worldview) is that students want (and are often sold) choice – but when it can’t be offered, they’re upset. That means that only being able to experience a lecture online when you’ve travelled halfway around the world to do so is met with disdain, and only being able to experience a seminar in-person when the student funding regime forces you to work 20 or 30 hours a week is met with derision.

As Jim said back in July 2021, a “blend” of online only and in-person only sessions is like nuts and gum in a jar – it ends up pleasing nobody. That, we suspect, will continue to feed through into NSS.

3. My personal what

In some ways student officers highlighting consistency problems with their personal tutoring system is an issue as old as those systems in the first place, but this year we’ve both noticed a sharp uptick in the number of tales we’ve heard of new officers that have simply never experienced one to one academic support at their university outside of the confines of formal episodes of teaching – often despite clear policies on personal tutoring or dissertation supervision promising the opposite.

When this happens and we ask what subject the student was studying, or whether they were an undergraduate or postgraduate, the patterns are clear – international students, business studies and psychology, postgraduate taught. The sector seriously needs to get its act together here – because as everyone knows, the biggest driver of dissatisfaction amongst students is differences in the way that students are treated where there isn’t an obvious pedagogical justification.

At some stage, through a PG NSS or a clipboarded OfS boot on the ground, someone is going to notice. Our sense is that on this one, they ought to.

4. Mental health is not extra curricular

On that personal tutor issue, when we ask new student officers to map their journey through education, we’ve heard all sorts of powerful and inspiring stories about the role that some academic staff play in helping students to realise their potential through understanding of student mental health. But not only are most of those stories overlaid with a sense that they got lucky, we also hear just as many stories of interactions with academics who seem to reject the idea of thinking about or understanding student mental health altogether.

This isn’t (just) a question of capacity or the staff-student ratio. Across the country, the appropriate role for academic staff on mental health feels wildly unsettled – we’ve heard stories of some academics proudly announcing that such issues are nothing to do with them early on, and others slipping into amateur counselling in the face of thin central (or statutory) provision. And this isn’t just about 121 support either – some SU officers tell us about productive conversations on mental health considerations in pedagogy, others laugh ruefully on the basis that they’ll never get near that discussion.

Some proper sector-wide reflection on the Abrahart case (rather than just privately urging Bristol to appeal) would really help here.

5. The great British baked-in

One of the interesting things we get when we ask those student leaders who’ve been undergraduates is reflections on their experience during Covid. We won’t go over all the ways in which the sector managed to gaslight them over “quality” here – we’ve heard too many tales of courses simply stopping between March and October 2020 – but what’s interesting is the sheer volume of student officers that tell us that the pivot that was most valuable wasn’t being able to watch a lecture on a laptop, but the 24-hour timed exam.

There really are vanishingly few student leaders that tell us that the old high-stakes, paper and pencil cliff edge exams of old are something they’d yearn to go back to – and when when we get into the discussion, it’s clear that they argue that completing tasks over a 24 hour period is both more like real life, and doesn’t make them easier per se, but it does make it easier to reach the desired standard. And when some in the sector say that such changes make it easier to cheat, the students we talk to see it differently – they say it’s the sort of collaboration they engage in when working on deadlined essays or projects.

This all goes right to the heart of the debate about adjustments during the pandemic and grade inflation. If changes to assessment design and the regulations around made it easier to demonstrate that they’d reached a standard, that by definition means that we should be seeing grade inflation. Put another way – why are we so willing to believe that rapid innovation in teaching was positive but rapid innovation in assessment wasn’t?

But these are not arguments we’ve heard UUK make – which seems instead to be intent on smothering the debate with complexity and making unrealistic promises rather than generating proper public understanding.

6. High anxiety

There’s little public debate about it, but just under the surface of the sector we hear a lot about the “engagement collapse” – folks that are worried that students are neither turning up in-person, nor participating meaningfully (or at all) in online delivery. Some of that seems to be about time, and a problematic debate that seems to swing between pretending that full-time students are full time, and making so many accommodations for complex lives as to reduce “study” to below a minimum meaningful level of required time and focus.

But much of it remains about anxiety. Both in the student leaders we meet and in the tales of stories they represent, we are still picking up all the signs we saw during the pandemic of a cohort of students feeling restless, wound-up, or on-edge, that is easily fatigued, that has sleep problems, that has difficulty concentrating and even more difficulty controlling feelings of worry, imposter syndrome or a lack of confidence to experiment. They’re anxious.

In a sector that is (still) obsessed with the romance of jumping in at the “deep end”, we think that’s a worry – and wonder whether, for UG first years or PGs new to the UK, even an initial period of coaching (perhaps delivered by trained student volunteers or student staff) might help to reduce the sense of overwhelm.

7. Is it something I did

We need to talk about citizenship. One of the pervading stories that higher education tells about itself is that graduates emerge aware about the world and are able to influence it in conjunction with fellow citizens – but we’re not so sure. When folks find out what we do with SUs, we are both often asked why students are not as angry as previous generations – why they’re not taking to the streets or occupying offices over the way they’ve been treated in recent years.

We won’t go over the numerous theories again here, suffice to say that when we ask student officers to reflect on their experiences as students – in particular why their experience was the way it was – much of the material is either about luck and fate, or their personal choices. And that means that their breadth and depth of understanding of who and what has really been shaping their lives – the people, politics and policy of higher education that we focus on here at Wonkhe – can be narrow, shallow or problematically simplistic. There are obviously exceptions that disprove this rule, and there’s still the odd radical leftist that is baffled by the bureaucracy and the charity law talk they’re given as SU trustees. But too often – especially where we’re meeting STEM or vocationally focussed student leaders – what the sector might have assumed would just “happen” in chats in flats almost certainly isn’t.

Naturally a few hours in a training room and we get that fixed up sharpish – and we’re not expecting everyone with a graduation photo to be a SpAd in waiting – but there is something about the way in which Generation Z seems both able to and desperate to avoid the “poison” of politics that deserves much closer interrogation than we’ve previously seen.

8. Belongings for change

A quick one this – if you’re a university that scored 60 percent or lower in NSS Question 21 (“I feel part of a community of staff and students”), and your only fix for that is to plaster the word “belonging” on the front page of the website, that is a) not going to work and b) wind up your student officers. It’s worse if there’s a particular subject area or student characteristic where scores are worse and there are no discernible steps – whether they involve the SU or not – to tackle that. This is however a great way to project to your key student stakeholders that you may be more interested in gaming metrics through perception than actually working on improving the experience of being a student.

We’ve had an earful of anger about this all summer.

9. Ta da

One final thing we’d mention. Most university leaders that we meet don’t really “do” vulnerability very well, and neither do most student leaders that we meet. And to be honest we therefore detect a dangerous lie in the tales we hear of meetings between student reps and university managers – because there’s a failure to share that changing things is really bloody hard at the moment when the external environment is chaotic and there’s a lack of capacity, money and goodwill to address it.

It leads to lots of urging for things to change on the part of student leaders, and lots of defensive urging to ease off, or false reassurance that things are under control from university leaders.

Finding ways to be open and honest about the challenges that the sector is facing – and believing (on both sides) in real collaboration and genuine creativity (rather than lazy copying) to address them would almost certainly help.

One response to “What we learned on your summer holidays

  1. “the pivot that was most valuable wasn’t being able to watch a lecture on a laptop, but the 24-hour timed exam.”

    I’m surprised this article didn’t pick up on the potential welfare issues of 24 hour exams. We found some students ended up spending a significant proportion of the 24 hours working on the exam to the extent of neglecting sleep. In a busy exam period with several exams in a week this really wasn’t great for some students, and risked encouraging really unhealthy working patterns. Perhaps an 8 hour exam would keep many of the benefits while being a lot better for students.

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