The UPP Foundation established the Student Futures Commission, chaired by Mary Currnock Cook, in early 2021. It set out to understand how the pandemic was affecting new and current students and to work with them and the higher education sector to identify what could be done to get students back on track for successful futures. The report is based on two polls of students, taken in May and October 2021, three formal oral evidence sessions with 20 experts from across higher education, students’ unions, business and the wider sector and an evidence session for five students’ unions. It also involved three campus visits, roundtables and focus groups, a survey of vice-chancellors and written evidence.
The Commission focused on three main areas in its analysis and evidence gathering: teaching and learning; student experience and wellbeing; and employability. Using this evidence, it has set out six themes that are at the heart of successful student futures: pre-arrival support; yearly inductions; mental health and wellbeing; a clear outline of the teaching students will receive; activities that build skills, networks and communities; and a clear pathway towards graduate outcomes.
- The Student Futures Commission recommends institutions work with their students to co-create a Student Futures Manifesto, co-signed by both parties. This would serve as a powerful statement of intent and advocacy for successful student futures, and provide a meaningful framework for future action (p24)
- A raft of evidence shows disadvantaged pupils have been hardest hit by the pandemic. There are substantial disparities in learning losses at a regional level. The vast amount of activity between schools, universities and other partners could be harnessed to increase focus on supporting pre-university students to build up confidence in their abilities (p29)
- Universities could set out in their manifesto: how activities will help tackle the new and existing barriers to preparedness; a programme of resources helping students understand the knowledge they need to access their course, including specific subject-based support and skills; baseline self-assessment of preparedness on arrival to identify where interventions might be helpful e.g. involving current students and recent graduates in tutoring or academic mentorship (p30)
- There should be year one and two inductions and re-inductions for all students. Manifestos could set out introduction modules that ensure students can access all the information they need without being overwhelmed; and tailored transition and reintegration support for specific cohorts of students e.g. those with disabilities or caring responsibilities (p41)
- In support for mental health and wellbeing, Manifestos could set out how universities will ensure all students have access to, and feel comfortable to access, mental health support; a commitment to join the University Mental Health Charter Programme, or a plan for enacting its recommendations; pulse surveys/other evaluations to monitor student wellbeing and act on feedback; and a route to more personalised ways of triaging student concerns (p48)
- The Commission’s student poll in Autumn 2021 showed 90 per cent wanted in-person lectures where content is also recorded. In-person seminars were also strongly preferred compared to a fully online alternative (p52)
- Students need to be in receipt of full information about teaching methods before they embark on courses. Universities should prioritise and maximise opportunities for students to meet and learn in-person and on campus (p54)
- In their Manifestos, universities and students could set out how they will ensure visibility of the teaching and learning methods, and what the benefits of those methods are; a clear package of support for the most disadvantaged students to address digital inequalities; and a new digital skills plan as part of a transition support package (p57)
- Manifestos could cover how universities will go about revitalising access to extracurricular activities for all students. Activities that promote a sense of belonging may be integrated into curricula. Service Learning (bringing together an academic component of study that students use more broadly in the community) could promote a sense of belonging while also increasing students’ skills and employability (p63)
- On employability, Manifestos should set out how students will be made aware of the employability skills they gain from their course and wider activities eg an annotated curriculum plan highlighting employability skills on different modules. There could also include a plan to maximise the number of students undertaking formal placements, internships, entrepreneurship schemes, or other opportunities; a programme of work-related learning that the university facilitates; and careers support which extends from before arrival to after graduation (p76)
Implications for governance:
One of the overarching findings from the UUP research is that the pandemic has created a “worrying baseline of low confidence” among young people. School leavers and current students alike, particularly those from disadvantaged backgrounds, were worried that they were behind in their academic progress, regardless of whether this was true.
The Manifesto plan provides a framework for universities and their governing bodies to start to address this, beginning before students arrive and extending to after graduation.
Recommendations covering pre-arrival support for prospective students are particularly pertinent given the level of learning loss suffered by many students during the pandemic and dovetail to some extent with the government’s “access refresh”.
They envisage that the vast amount of activity between schools, universities and other partners which is already taking place in widening participation, could, in future, increase focus on building up abilities and skills and directly help to raise attainment. This is a direction of travel governing bodies will be starting to look at and which could well have resource implications.
Next, and related, is the importance of induction and the less familiar “re-induction” idea. Written evidence submitted by UCAS showed that only 26 per cent of applicants felt “completely ready” for starting HE. In the Commission’s Autumn term poll, 68 per cent of students in their first year agreed their university had given them all the support they needed to prepare for the start of term, but this dropped to 42 per cent for students in their second or third year.
Second-year inductions at a number of universities were born out of the need to introduce second-year students to campus life following lockdowns - but the Commission makes a case for them becoming standard. Its evidence gathering indicates that a deliberate but flexible approach is needed, which provides time for breadth and depth of support, signposting, and community building.
Case studies of various induction programmes, mostly online, will be of interest to governors. The report also highlights a new initiative, Join the Dots, run by the Brilliant Club and starting this summer, where PhD “coaches” will be matched to eight freshers for a six-month transition programme.
Mental health and wellbeing is an area that universities have recently focussed on. Despite this, the Commission’s student polls revealed a significant minority of students would feel uncomfortable contacting their university for support with mental health. Again, case studies in the report will be of interest to governors and show how support can be targeted sensitively to specific groups which may be of greater risk. Data from UCAS estimates 50 per cent of students currently don’t disclose mental health issues to their university or college.
The report highlights how services online can mean better triaging and streamlining and help students to come forward with difficulties before they reach a point of crisis – and crucially then to be guided through the system rather than left to tackle this themselves. It recommends that this “more personalised and proactive approach should be fully embraced” but warned that it can be undermined if students are then simply being added to lengthy waiting lists.
The chapter on the balance between online and in-person teaching and learning will also make interesting reading for governors, given the controversy over the retention of virtual lectures at some institutions. The recommendation that manifestos provide clear details of the teaching students will receive echoes government demands that universities tell students exactly how much face-to-face teaching they will get before they start their degrees. The report warns of the importance of ensuring both students and staff have the digital skills and equipment to make the best of IT innovations in teaching and learning.
Some illuminating case studies are provided in the sections on activities that promote skills, networks and communities and employability. These include an 11-day Festival of Discovery at Exeter University and King’s College London Service learning education programme.
University governors may want to consider if a manifesto approach, co-created with students as outlined by the report, could help support the institution’s key strategic aims and advance Covid recovery.
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