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Great Expectations: Myth and the Student Experience

  • 5 May 2023
  • By Jon Down, Ellie Garraway
  • This HEPI blog was kindly authored by Jon Down, Director of Development and Ellie Garraway, CEO, of Grit Breakthrough Programmes. Grit delivers intensive personal development and coaching programmes in universities across the UK.

In his recent HEPI blog, Leo Hanna outlined the dangers of students’ expectations not matching up to reality: wasted opportunities for non-continuing students, lost revenue and reputational harm to institutions. Jo Richards at UCAS, also on HEPI, points out that with the cost of living crisis impacting students disproportionately, this year many students are “thinking ahead to a student experience that might be very different to the one they had originally expected: over half had lowered their expectations about student life.”

But student expectations and the attendant realities are not just impacted by financial concerns. Those early days of University in particular, are ripe with expectation and myth: the promise of transformation, of reinvention, of chances to break free from the past and begin afresh. It’s a time to shed a skin and become a new, better, more successful version of yourself.

There are the academic myths: you will only study things that are interesting instead of stuff you do not care about; it will get you to the career you always wanted; the first year does not count; it’s easier that A-Levels.

There are the social myths: these will be the best years of your life; you will find yourself, discover who you are; you will meet your future husband or wife; you will enjoy the independence you have always wanted.

But, as myth bumps up against reality, many students find that the shine can quickly begin to fade. That baggage they thought they have left behind is still there, lurking in the shadows. It’s not as straightforward as they thought to become the new confident, popular, hard-working, charismatic, focused person they had imagined becoming. 

Quite quickly they come to feel that their everyday experience is not living up to those glittering expectations. Nowhere near. They have not emerged, blinking into the sunlight, a renewed human being. Instead, they are still the same awkward, sometimes lonely, anxious, far-from-perfect version of themselves that they’ve always been.

And what’s worse they feel that it is only them. Somehow, everyone else is having a fantastic student experience. But not them.

This can be debilitating: hang-ups get more ingrained than before, destructive survival patterns take over. Unless they can reframe this experience students can end up feeling worse about themselves. As one student told us, “I was desperate to get uni RIGHT, but I wasn’t handling it well. I couldn’t keep up with it.”

University isa huge, huge opportunity for students to reframe their lives, the way they see the world around them and their place in it, what they believe they can make of themselves. When a student does not feel able to seize this opportunity, to get a foot on the ladder, it can be hugely dispiriting, demoralizing and destructive. Supporting students to take the opportunity must be a crucial part of what higher education is all about.

So, what needs to happen?

We might think of the university experience as a kind of all-encompassing change programme. But, as with any change process, when we navigate the challenges and the pitfalls it is tempting to fall back into our own familiar biases. In fact, the more challenging the time, the more likely we are to fall back on past habits or survival mechanisms. Brene Brown talks about it at the level of the individual: the impulse to act, to do something, to fix something, even when it is unlikely to produce the results we want.

We have seen this time and again in dealing with complex issues such as race and racism where the desire to fix and act can impede the change that is being called for. At the level of the institution, it manifests as an imperative towards structural change: tangible ways to demonstrate action through policies, recruitment practices, curriculum alterations, supervision structures.

While action and structure are critically important components of change, without a shift in the underpinning culture of an institution and the mind-sets of the individuals who make it up, there is a danger that change becomes merely performative, that impact is limited. As Ken Wilber argues, true and lasting change cannot happen if we don’t scratch beneath the surface.

These are the sticky, uncomfortable, less immediately tangible aspects of change. Any process that challenges us to look deep inside ourselves can be intimidating, unsettling and difficult. It can be disruptive and discomforting. But it can also be a game-changer, and in our experience, students are hungry for conversations that get under the skin, that address what is reallygoing on.

So, to really get to the heart of what it means for university to meet those truly transformational expectations for every student, we must be willing not just to jump into action, not just to change the structures. We must be willing to give time to conversations that are uncomfortable and challenging, to invest in processes that gets us to see past those blind spots, those assumptions and beliefs are often at the foundations of our comfort zone.

Of course, this takes care, thought and consideration. If the environment does not feel safe, if the time and the receptivity to deal with what results, with what comes back, is not generated then the process will not take us anywhere useful.

But when students are able to create these breakthroughs, they experience real freedoms. They develop a greater sense of who they are and who they want to be, about what they really want to achieve in their lives. They can see a way to becoming that new, better, more successful version of themselves. So, while students might find their student experience very different to the one they had been expecting, this doesn’t mean it has to be ‘lower.’ The impact of it might just be the one they had been hoping for all the time.

And this applies to institutions as well. By collectively engaging in difficult conversations, we can disrupt institutional expectations, the accepted myths about how students and the universities themselves should be. As with students, breakthroughs happen, and universities too can become more successful versions of themselves.

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