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Connectedness, trust and student engagement

  • 24 March 2020
  • By Mary Curnock Cook

This blog was kindly contributed by Mary Curnock Cook, a HEPI Advisory Board member and Chair of Council for the Dyson Institute.

I often reflect that today’s youngsters are courageous and articulate and funny and breathtakingly clever in ways that my generation just wasn’t. Perhaps the distance in years has blurred my recollection. But something else has changed. Employers find that young graduates are often anxious about things and really want support to make sense of their new working, adult lives. Their resilience and confidence needs developing, and they want help with this. In the same way that they are increasingly confident in choosing careers with high social impact over high salaries, young graduates today are also looking to work in environments where their wellbeing will be supported.

These shifting cultural norms are also highly relevant to universities which need both to attract students to their courses in the face of competition, but also to demonstrate student success at university and afterwards in the job market.

A new report from Enlitened, part of the Student Room Group, looks at how ‘connected, engaged and supported’ undergraduate students are in the UK. In a classic virtuous circle, the report suggests that feeling connected is highly correlated with trust, and trust increases with awareness of and confidence in university resources. Addressing these areas quite directly could help universities significantly improve their students’ overall experience, as well as helping prepare them better for the world of work. It goes without saying that in the current coronavirus crisis, universities resorting to remote working and online learning will soon feel the pinch if they don’t have some connectedness-credit in the bank.

The research suggests that only just over half of students feel ‘connected’ to their university. Connectedness is a wider and more nuanced concept than student experience because it signals a whole range of propensities from supporting the university more generally, being prepared to help it out or give it the benefit of doubt when things go wrong, to getting actively involved in the university’s success. But it goes further than this because this new research indicates that connected students are more likely to trust their university, and when they trust their university, they will be more likely to seek support with emotional and wellbeing issues as well as more prosaic issues such as academic or financial support.

Feeling connected and trusting the university will also help overcome the lack of confidence and shyness that respondents cited as some of the key barriers that stop them from accessing support. This is important as 63 per cent of respondents reported to have kept their mental wellbeing concerns to themselves in the last year, without seeking help from their university. With the findings showing that third year respondents are more likely than both second and first year students to keep concerns around anxiety, stress, depression, and academic and financial issues to themselves, trust and self-confidence seems to erode rather than deepen as students progress through their courses. Unsurprisingly, students with disabilities are even more likely to hold back from asking for help.

While many of the findings in this report ring true, there are a few key questions that universities will want to address. First is why trust and confidence in student support services seems to decline in the second and third years of study. Are universities focussing their energies into inducting and connecting with their new students at the expense of supporting second and later years? Or are students themselves becoming more mature and independent and therefore less likely to seek help? Either way, if universities want students to feel connected throughout their study years, it’s important that active engagement doesn’t tail off, especially as students further through their studies will have more exam and assessment worries as well as anxieties about finding a job after graduation.

Also buried in the report is an astonishingly low engagement level with student unions (which also score relatively poorly on the National Student Survey). Given that peer support is often the first port of call for students in distress, it’s worrying that only 12 per cent of respondents said they trusted their student union and only 3 per cent would go to them for information and support.

Friends and family remain the most trusted source of support for students for a range of anxieties and concerns but it’s worth noting that students are also likely to turn to online resources. The anonymity of online help is often a draw for students shy or lacking in confidence to seek face to face help, and universities will do well to provide a mix of resources that students can use. With universities across the sector reporting huge increases in demand for student support services, online resources and apps can be vital in making sure that students know about and connect with their university services when they need help.

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