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What is the ideal method of delivering material to improve student welfare?

  • 10 December 2019
  • By Bede Rauh

This blog was kindly contributed by Bede Rauh, Co-Founder of Thrive and Survive.

Recently the joint HEPI / Unite Students New Realists report delivered the resoundingly accurate statement:

Part of the misunderstanding about today’s school leavers comes from an unwarranted assumption that people miraculously become fully fledged adults between leaving school in the summer and starting university the following autumn.

This statement has been true for years; new students coming into our higher education system need support. And yet, the ideal method of delivering material to support new students’ wellbeing and raise awareness for available support services is unclear. Furthermore, in recent years higher education has begun a generational shift as Generation Z have started university. I want to consider what this means for student welfare and whether there needs to be a change in the delivery of student advice.

Who are Generation Z?

The internet is awash with descriptions of Gen Z, the generation to which I belong and the generation with the highest participation in higher education. Of course, no generation is a homogenous group but there are generalised traits which are interesting to examine from a student welfare perspective. I have pulled out three:

  1. They are ‘sceptical about the cost and value of education’ , because they grew up during a recession;
  2. They value transparency and value communication that is ‘authentic, emotional and genuine’; and
  3. They are tech-savvy having been born into a world where technology and social media have always existed.

Their impact on higher education clearly will be vast and will almost certainly take the form of an increase in digital means of teaching, communicating and supporting students. So, what does this mean for student welfare and the delivery of advice and support? I turn to Rachel Hewitt’s HEPI report on effectively measuring mental well-being in higher education, who importantly reminds us at this stage that:

The terms ‘Mental Health’ and ‘Well-being’ are often used interchangeably. Conflating mental health and well-being can be damaging to individuals and the provision of support services.

In this piece, I am considering the ideal delivery of support for just wellbeing materials. The report goes on to say, that ‘those with low levels of wellbeing may have the agency to address this with the help of generalised resources’.

So, considering the nature of Gen Z, should these resources be online/app based, following many professionals’ calls to connect digital engagement to the student experience? Many universities are moving advice and support materials online, especially when welcoming new students to university. Although I agree that digitalisation is inevitable and necessary, I would advise caution when it comes to totally digitalising the delivery of student advice and support for several reasons.

Firstly, I believe that an over-reliance on tech-based delivery could exacerbate underlying problems with the current generation of students. According to one study, 55% of Gen Z use their smart phones five or more hours a day and 26% use their phones for ten or more hours a day. I strongly believe there is a correlation between students’ reliance on their phones and social media, and the worrying trends in student loneliness, what with 46% of UK students admit to having feelings of loneliness during their time at university. Could there be too much focus on tech? Although it seems an easy and appealing route to students, it lacks the substance of the physical realm. I agree that if students spend so much time online it is an obvious way to interact with them, but I still don’t see online materials as effective enough.

Another problem is that often online materials are too easy to ignore. Gen Z’s tech-savviness can also hinder online-based support because the competition for a student’s attention online is astronomical. It has increased their scepticism of online materials and emphasised their longing for ‘authentic, emotional and genuine’ experiences’. The fact is that despite the online abundance of student advice and support materials, many students go through university completely oblivious to the personal support and advice their institution offers. Is there an assumption that current students want only online materials when physical materials still have an impact?

The positive potential of physical materials

Claire Povah and Simon Vaukins wrote in the Guardian, ‘It’s not all about digital development… a rare delivery through the post can have a bigger impact than ever before’. I completely agree and believe the age of technology has tremendously increased the potential significance of welcoming students with a physical document. I also agree that most of the student advice and support being online is sensible however, astutely delivered physical materials (a letter, a leaflet, a booklet) have huge scope for impacting students. Obviously a dull piece of paper, typically Arial type on a white background, is as easy to ignore as any online resource, but a well thought out, genuine and eye-catching document delivered directly to a student certainly is not.

Currently, the most common physical welcome a first-year student finds in their room is a package containing various ‘freebies’. To the critical eye, this is far more about advertising to the ‘hard to reach’ student market than it is about delivering sound advice to new students and signposting important university support services. This is a great shame and a missed opportunity to get impactful advice to students at an important transition point.

Returning to the question of what the best method of delivering material is, the answer is surely an intelligent marriage of online and physical resources. The targeted delivery of a physical resource can ensure the maximum impact on a student, making sure that the important messages are not missed and increasing awareness of student services, online or otherwise. More research needs to be done following on from the good work of HEPI and others, especially on the implications of a new digital age, but ultimately, I hope that the physical is not lost in all this.

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