Published findings from our empirical case study with higher education (HE) students reveal two key themes: first, a perception that there is a hierarchy of extracurricular activities; and second, anxieties about some of the barriers that inhibit involvement. Exploring these themes, we make recommendations as to how key stakeholders could respond, particularly given the moves by higher education institutions (HEIs) to provide online teaching and learning environments.
Extracurricular activities: the values of, and barriers to, engagement
The increased commodification of the HE sector has resulted in a focus on student employability. Key stakeholders (including HEIs, student unions, and employers) often promote the value of engagement with extracurricular activities as a means for developing students’ transferable skills and graduate employment opportunities (see, for example, Watson (2011)). Yet, students may be faced with barriers that inhibit their involvement, including a lack of available time or financial resources. There are already concerns about the number of students who rely on part-time work to fund their courses and/or who may be juggling caring responsibilities alongside their studies.
Against this backdrop, a staff/student research team invited students from a post-1992 HEI (from all courses and at all levels of their studies) to share their perceptions of extracurricular activities through focus group discussions. The team defined extracurricular activities as ‘any activities that students may undertake outside of their formal studies’. The findings revealed participants’ perceptions that there are various potential benefits, barriers and harms that can result from engagement with extracurricular activities. Whilst extracurricular activities can provide opportunities for developing transferable skills, building confidence and socialising, students may be restricted from participation by a number of factors,
including cultural expectations and low confidence levels. Opportunities to engage with extracurricular activities are also perceived to induce feelings of stress which are presented against a backdrop of well-documented concerns about HE students’ mental health.
HEIs’ responses to the Covid-19 pandemic
The Covid-19 pandemic has encouraged both Russell Group and post-1992 HEIs to explore opportunities for providing blended learning experiences (see, for example the University of Durham and Sheffield Hallam University). As pointed out by the HEPI, the student experience is much broader than the studies that underpin it. They reveal how HEIs have also encouraged students to become involved with extracurricular activities through a number of virtual mechanisms, including a sports tracking app and an online students’ union.
Whilst these measures have been put in place by way of a response to the UK Government’s guidance on the Coronavirus (Covid-19) pandemic, they also present opportunities for minimising some of the issues presented by previous engagement with extracurricular activities. Students who may have previously experienced issues as a result of their commute, for example, may now have more time to explore the programmes of extracurricular activities on offer. In a similar vein, the minimisation of travel costs may mean that students are more financially able to participate in extracurricular activities.
Conversely, the move to more virtual extracurricular activities has the potential to exacerbate existing issues around HE students’ wellbeing. There are already well-documented concerns about the mismatch between the demand for student mental health care and the budgets being made available. Since the arrival of the pandemic, figures from the Office of National Statistics Opinion and Lifestyle Survey reveal how: 63% of the general public felt ‘worried about the future’, 56% were stressed or anxious, and 49% felt bored. In response, UniversitiesUK have launched a campaign, #2020MADEUS to boost school-leavers’ confidence in pursuing their aspirations to study HE courses. Whilst the focus has, understandably, been on those affected by the issues surrounding the calculation of this year’s A-level results, it is important not to lose sight of those students who may be returning to university. There will be particular pressures for those who are returning to simultaneously complete their final year and secure graduate employment within an uncertain economic environment.
Recommendation for future research
In developing their strategic and operational responses, HEIs are tasked with striking an appropriate balance between a number of factors, including the health and safety of staff and students, tuition fees, and a competitive HE market. We suggest that the current environment presents an opportunity for the development of a longitudinal study. This research could focus on both the provision of, and engagement with, extracurricular activities, during the Covid-19 pandemic. It could explore the perceptions of key stakeholder groups, including HEIs, students and employers, over a period of time. The findings could then inform the design and promotion of extracurricular programmes to support all students with their personal and professional development within the challenging HE environment and graduate recruitment sector.
Dr Jill Dickinson and Teri-Lisa Griffiths are Senior Lecturers within the Department of Law and Criminology at Sheffield Hallam University. Their research interests include the student experience and professional development. Alex Bredice is a graduate from Sheffield Hallam University and is pursuing a career as a psychological researcher.
Our Connect Benefit Series runs throughout the membership year, focusing on specific themes each month. December 2020's theme is student engagement Engaging learners: Any time? Any place? Anyhow? Find out more