Whose job is it to help students make friends?

If students need friends, whose job is to make it happen - and what do we mean by friends, anyway? Jim Dickinson's mother warned him there would be days like these

I love my colleagues here at Team Wonkhe, I really do.

Most days, we get on really well. We know each other’s strengths and weaknesses, we instinctively how we’ll each respond to things, and we can generally sense when each other might be having a tough time of it.

It’s a fun and rewarding team to be a part of, and those relationships make working at Wonkhe much more enjoyable than would otherwise be the case.

But there is a truth about these relationships. I don’t really consider any of the team to be my friends. I don’t think I’d ever have any of them ’round for dinner, I wouldn’t imagine them being godparents to my kids, and the idea of holidaying with them gives me the shivers.

I was thinking about this the other way when I was catching up on the findings from the qualitative diary analysis from our belonging research with Pearson.

It’s like you’re always stuck in second gear

Ever since we started doing mass polling on loneliness back in 2019, there’s been this clear sense that friendship and the building of social capital is important to the student experience – and crucially to the student academic experience.

But when we first analysed the qual in the loneliness research and presented it to student reps, professional services staff and academics, there was always one slide that caused some discomfort – our recommendation that academic staff, as well SU officers or halls managers or whatever, should take some responsibility for building connections and student social activity.

Some were enthusiastic. Some responded with derision and horror.

It’s a reaction we saw during the pandemic – when at various points, students were signalling their loneliness and the impact on their academic experience, but staff were just as often complaining that “they’re still getting the teaching” or “we’re not responsible for their social life”.

It’s a reaction reflected in the survey of university and SU staff that we carried out as part of the research with Pearson on belonging.

The good news is that 76 per cent of respondents believed that “Forging new connections and building peer relationships is an essential part of the university learning experience for all students” compared with 1 per cent who saw it as “an added bonus” but “not material to the learning experience.”

When we asked who should have responsibility for enabling students to build peer connections, the three top choices were students themselves, course tutors and module leaders, and students’ unions. Many respondents felt it was a collective responsibility but that the course was where all students would definitely interact – particularly given that extra-curricular activities such as clubs and societies would not work for all students.

But a significant number of academics felt that the responsibility of fostering connections should not fall to them. Of those, many cited already too high workloads and responsibilities, felt it would ”muddy the waters” of their remit, or felt that if students wanted friends, then they should take advantage of the activities offered by the students’ union.

This is, I suspect, a major problem. And I think the key to it is understanding that students may not need “friends” within the academic context – but they do need course mates.

When the rain starts to pour

When I think back to my most recent experience of being a student in HE – a student undertaking block weekend teaching and what is now the Bayes Business School at City University – I can honestly say that I didn’t then and don’t now consider any of the other students on the course to be my friends, per se.

But thanks to the activities laid on by the academics on the programme, I did get involved in and benefit from a group of other students that I had a relationship with. We would sit near to each other, message each other during and between episodes of teaching, and share resources or confusion about assessment. We might not have been friends – but we were coursemates.

And as such, so many of the comments in the student diaries that my colleague Sunday Blake has been analysing for the Pearson research make perfect sense.

One student, reflecting on what made them feel part of the academic community, said:

…it’s the knowledge at this point that if I walk into a classroom, I’ll recognise a few people that I can chat to, even if I wouldn’t necessarily consider them my friend.”

Another had said that friendship was important – but went on to be explicit about the sort of friendship they meant:

It’s a very course specific, coursemate friendship because we’ve all got so different lives – very, very different lives. And I think there [are] one or two people that I connect with on a personal level, but apart from that, we’re very much course orientated and very much thinking about the course materials.”

One student differentiated specifically between the responsibilities for forging different types of friendship:

[t]he university needs to take more responsibility for it […] the university is there for academic work, and the union is there for socialisation. [The university] didn’t really see the importance of socialisation that was course-related.”

Another was glowing about the importance of a straightforward, informal and inexpensive social event that had been organised prior to the beginning of the module:

I believe belonging begins at these events. When there are [events] with an explicit academic focus but also a social aspect it enables students to get to know each other and members of academic staff.”

And another compartmentalised different types of friendship on campus:

Yes, I’m pretty much the same. I think my course friends are very much isolated from my other friendships.”

As well as the qualitative evidence in the diary analysis, there’s solid evidence for this concept in quantitative work too. In this study on the links between student satisfaction and different types of interaction in higher education, results showed that student satisfaction can be explained not only by who the students interacted with (peers vs. staff), but also how they interacted with these individuals (either in a formal or an informal format).

Three forms of interaction – student–student formal (ie in the classroom or in project groups), student–student informal (ie clubs, societies, friendship groups) and student-staff formal (notably not student-staff informal, predator fans) were found to be significant predictors of satisfaction.

And a dive into this year’s HEPI/Advance HE Student Academic Experience survey both bears out the link between loneliness and low levels of satisfaction, and demonstrates a link to drop out. Of those in that survey considering withdrawing, almost 35 per cent felt lonely most or all of the time. Of those that hadn’t considered it, that percentage fell to 17 per cent.

Like I’ve been there before

One deeply frustrating thing about the revised Advance HE Professional Standards Framework – that may or may not be a product of not having a student on the steering group – is that it contains no mention of mental health and wellbeing. Yet in Advance HE’s excellent Education for Mental Health Toolkit, there’s an entire section on social belonging that makes clear that given the centrality of the curriculum to student experience, it is an important context in which students can find a sense of community, connection and belonging.

Some of that is about how disabled students are treated and supported. Some of it is about taking deliberate steps to provide a sense of social (academic) connection, and some of it is about academics nurturing a shared identity to improve learning within a cohort. Some of it is about building shared ground rules, or remembering (and pronouncing correctly) names. Some of it is about students being facilitated to interact with those not like them. Much of it is central to successful access and participation:

Building community through the discipline therefore avoids marginalising students who may not share other common experiences and helps individuals build academic identity and a sense of belonging to their discipline. Particular care, however, should be taken to include minoritized students in this process, given that they may not always see themselves reflected in those who teach or are associated with the discipline’s history

Perhaps in the past this wasn’t necessary. When everyone lived on campus, came from the same social class and had the money and time to forge the sorts of connections identified here, maybe it was fine to leave these sorts of social-academic activities to serendipity and the students’ union. But the past is another country – and what’s clear is that our hyper-diverse and socially anxious students need us to take steps to ensure that they feel they belong, not least so that they can support each other, and take the pressure off both formal support services and academics’ inboxes.

I’d also add that since the last version of the PSF was published, surely everyone can see that the way in which students learn has changed significantly – with considerably more student interaction and “social learning” than happened in the past. Reflecting that explicitly, and ensuring that all students can access and experience it, seems like a no-brainer for inclusion in the PSF to me.

Your mother warned you there’d be days like these

Everything takes time, but ensuring that students have course mates ought to be less daunting than ensuring they have friends. And the great news is that this need not necessarily be the sole responsibility of an already stressed academic. I have another blog to write soon on the motivations I’ve come across this past year for students standing to be their programme’s rep. But as a plot spoiler, very few of them wanted to be involved in quality assurance, and a remarkably high number wanted to forge connections between students. What would happen if a small group of students on every course were charged with and supported to foster classmate connections of the sort identified here? Are we so sure that wouldn’t work?

I do think, from time to time, this whole notion that you’ll “gain friends for life” at university ain’t half intimidating. Often it’s well-meaning academics in reminiscence mode, or the sort of positioning that someone from the agency said would work on a poster (invariably featuring skin-colour diverse yet “classically attractive” students only). But the signal it sends is one of a set of relationships that might not be possible in many universities for many students – let alone desirable or useful. What’s wrong with “you’ll build effective and rewarding working relationships with colleagues”, and then if it happens a BFF would be a bonus?

Oh, and putting the word “belonging” or the phrase “you’ll belong here” on your marketing material without being sure your university is taking the steps to build it? Please, please stop.

There are lessons for students’ unions here. On our recent study tour to Scandinavia, a focus on school or departmental level chapters – a sort of souped up academic society combined with a course rep system and student led work on careers – caused much more obvious social connection than your average UK students’ union Freshers Week with the Vengaboys on too loud.

In any event, even though me, Mark and Debbie go back a long way – and I enjoy occasional afternoons in the pub – I’m still not having them around for dinner. But we do occasionally meet in person, and are facilitated from time to time to share and discuss things as people.

The team at Wonkhe wouldn’t work without the shared passion for HE policy that is deliberately fostered through activities led by Debbie, and now as acting Editor by DK while Debbie is on mat leave. It is not their responsibility to cause members of the team to become BFFs. But Wonkhe wouldn’t work without ensuring that we are a team of workmates.

3 responses to “Whose job is it to help students make friends?

  1. It would be really interesting to do some similar research on how university staff identify with and feel they ‘belong’ to the university. In my observation, academic staff identify with their disciplinary community rather than display any loyalty with their university. Should they be free to simply contract their services to a number of institutions on a freelance basis?

    1. You would be surprised – supply is tight in Business schools that many do work for two employers…full-time!

      I once got invited to an event at a neighbouring University to find one of my SLs giving a lecture as a full time member of staff.

  2. Coming from an international background I find it quite interesting to what extent English HE is required and expected to (by various different parties) be involved in students’ life outside of strict academics. I’m not saying this is a bad thing, it’s just creates very complex situations.

    I completely agree though- there are many ex-coursemates I have fond memories of but no longer speak to purely because we never had anything in common other than my course. This does not lessen the impact they had on my experience and sense of belonging.

Leave a Reply