It has been a real pleasure working on The New Realists project with Unite Students. It follows on from our joint Reality Check report of 2017.
We and many other organisations survey students a lot. But this new report is different because it surveys applicants as well as students and because it incorporates qualitative research, which we do not do enough of in higher education policymaking.
This blog tries to bring out a few lessons for policy makers from the research.
First, it is striking that fewer first-year students have large friendship groups than those who are still at school / college. Initially, this seems surprising, given how much bigger universities are than schools. Yet new undergraduates may have grown up in the same community for years and been at the same school for a long time, allowing them to forge wide and deep friendships, whereas some students end up in accommodation that lacks social spaces, or have to commute long distances or have to undertake paid work alongside their studies. (The fact that friendships take time to settle down after enrolling at university reminds me of the section of Brideshead Revisited when someone warns Charles Ryder: ‘You’ll find you spend half your second year shaking off the undesirable friends you made in your first’!)
Secondly, I am struck by the students’ own perceptions that they are not fully-fledged adults. I took part in a HEPI debate at the University of Buckingham back in June on whether 18 year-olds are adults or not. In the room full of educators, my argument that 18 year-olds are not wholly adult went down like a bucket of cold sick. Yet today’s report shows that young full-time students regard themselves as ‘independent but not adults’. They are somewhere between those kids who act like adults, who are known as kidults, and adults who act like kids, who are sometimes labelled adultescents.
Thirdly, I am struck that only half (53%) of students with a mental health condition have disclosed it to their university. I don’t know what the right number is – many students may see starting higher education as offering a blank slate of moving them away from factors which have worsened their condition. But 53% seems quite low and suggests that, perhaps, we have further to go in removing the stigma of mental illness. Norman Lamb’s recent research suggests some universities also have work to do in making it easier for their students to disclose. That all has implications for resources: for example, if tuition fees were to fall, there might very well be less money around for services that support students.
Fourthly, the survey confirms what we already know about how students with non-traditional backgrounds are more likely to struggle to fit in. For example, we find students with black and minority ethnic (BME) backgrounds are less likely to say they feel successful. As I recall in my Foreword to the new publication, Shakira Martin, the old NUS President, used to talk about the importance of ‘getting in’ and ‘getting on’. This is a very difficult issue to get right and necessitates some uncomfortable conversations within institutions. HEPI will be launching a new report on the black attainment gap on Thursday, 19th September that aims to help institutions which want to close the gap. Sign up at the bottom of the homepage of our website to get it direct to your inbox the minute it is published.
Fifthly, I was struck by the finding that one-in-four students is often or, less commonly, always lonely. As a country, we are suffering an epidemic of loneliness. This is not universities’ fault. When the BBC undertook a big study of loneliness last year, they found that 16-to-24 year-olds are even more lonely than some of the oldest people in our society, irrespective of whether they are in higher education or not. But universities are good places to tackle loneliness. I remember listening to another former NUS President speak about how lonely she felt at university and hearing how this led her into student union politics. Joining a society is one particularly effective way to meet like-minded people or, indeed, to find wholly new interests.
Sixthly, I think we were all surprised by the findings about students finding lectures are more ‘useful’ than other forms of learning. I dimly recall reading something years ago that suggested the brain works harder when you are asleep than when you are in a less good lecture. But lectures are clearly valued by students as social events, as well as opportunities to learn. I recently heard the head of a small specialist institution say they had introduced lectures because students wanted them so much. I was also struck by the way in which students say they use technology in lectures. Every tech invention, from the radio, the cinema, the compact cassette, was meant to mean the end of traditional lectures but none of them have; they’ve complemented them instead.
Finally, I note the finding about care leavers enjoying university fresher weeks more than others. I sometimes think the single most poignant statement we have published in recent years is one about student care leavers in university holidays: ‘a deserted campus on Christmas Day is a lonely place to be.’ Freshers’ week may come close to being the opposite of Christmas Day for care leavers, as it is when universities really come alive for undergraduates after the summer.
One specific policy idea we talk about in the report is the idea of refresher weeks, which are a smart way to help students who were too nervous to get stuck in first time around or who joined after the start of the winter term or who merely want to make some new friends. Our hope is that staff and students respond to this and our other findings in constructive ways.