Richard Brabner argues that students’ social experience at university needs a rethink after the pandemic
One of the great benefits of a university education is the way the student experience transforms lives.
Studying for a degree is the purpose of university, but experiencing lots of different things is also important in order for students to find out who they are, what they want to be and how they want to grow. In jargon terms this is called the ‘immersive’ student experience, and it is crucial to their success in the classroom and as graduates.
Inevitably, the pandemic has been devastating to the immersive student experience. While clubs and societies are only one aspect of this, their fate over the past year is illustrative. Polling for the Sutton Trust found that participation by continuing students in student societies or sport fell from 54 per cent in autumn 2019 to 39 per cent in autumn 2020. This figure got worse after Christmas when students were unable to return to campus, with only 30 per cent taking part in extracurricular activities in the second term.
No blame can be attached to universities, which have worked against the odds to keep students on track during Covid-19. But while remote learning may have constituted a reasonable substitute for in-person classes, recreating the university social life has been much more difficult. Perhaps underscoring the cliché that you only truly value something when it is nearly gone, a study from across the pond has shown that students value university-related social activities almost twice as highly as in-person teaching.
So what can we do to support the student experience once life has returned to something like normal?
First, we should recognise that participation in an immersive experience was far from perfect before the pandemic, and future efforts to improve the student experience must be inclusive to all.
Prior to the pandemic, just over half of recent graduates from working-class backgrounds took part in student societies, compared with almost two-thirds of better-off students. The reasons for inequitable participation are varied and include lifestyle choices, but the financial circumstances of students are pretty fundamental.
A third of graduates who did not take part in student societies cited paid work commitments as a barrier. Other research has found that students who work more than 15 hours a week during term time are less likely to be engaged in the wider experiences university has to offer.
This leads me to my second point. Those from less advantaged backgrounds would benefit from better maintenance support, but there’s little indication that this is a government priority. We can’t just cross our fingers and hope for a policy solution; instead, we must find a sector-led way to support engagement among those from less advantaged backgrounds.
One way is to embed the benefits from the immersive experience—skills, relationships and personal development—within the curriculum so that all students benefit.
We could take inspiration from Tulane University in New Orleans. After Hurricane Katrina, the university decided to pivot its mission to social innovation and community engagement. As a result, all students now undertake two semesters of ‘service learning’—described as an educational experience based upon a partnership between the university and the community. In other words, learning by exercising skills to meet genuine community needs.
Closer to home, there are several examples of good practice in this space too. The charity Student Hubs (a grant recipient of the UPP Foundation) has developed a service learning programme with Kingston University. By including community-based projects in the classroom, it has been able to reach students who would never have otherwise engaged in extracurricular activities.
But the reason Tulane is such a good example is the context we are living through. It underlines the importance of a universal approach and shows how universities can help rebuild their local communities after a natural disaster by embedding their civic missions within the curriculum, thereby benefiting students and local communities alike.
Supporting student unions
While engagement within the curriculum is vital, my third and final point is that it shouldn’t stop universities from developing an access and participation agenda for extracurricular activities too.
Partnership with student unions is vital here. University clubs and societies depend upon, and are supported by, well-resourced student unions. Student unions essentially act as umbrella support organisations for student-led clubs and societies on campus. This provides some oversight and rigour in how they are run and ensures sustainability for current and future students.
But with little in-person activity over the past year, thousands of these ‘little platoons’ will need to be built up again almost from scratch. Universities will be conscious of this and must aim to provide the resources required so that a wide range of clubs and societies—catering for all interests—can thrive again.
One area where the partnership between universities and student unions could be developed further is an evidence-based approach to participation. As the University Mental Health Charter notes, work to support social integration and the creation of friendship groups within universities is often ad hoc and unevaluated.
A well-known good example of an evidence-led approach is the partnership between King’s College London and the Behavioural Insights Team. A few years ago, they ran several randomised controlled trials looking at ways to ‘nudge’ students from lower socioeconomic groups to take part in activities and adopt behaviours that build social capital. One of their main findings was that—perhaps counterintuitively—messages that linked participation to building friendships and belonging were more successful than ones that focused on employability for widening participation students.
Student Futures Commission
All of the above, and much more besides, will be considered as part of the UPP Foundation Student Futures Commission.
Formally launching on Tuesday, the commission will investigate how universities can take action to support continuing students from September 2021 in making the best of their remaining time at university, as well as supporting those who are starting their journey in higher education this year.
Alongside teaching, learning, employability and wellbeing, the immersive student experience will be at the heart of the inquiry.
Sign up to come to the launch and hear from commission chair Mary Curnock Cook, receive insights from student polling and have the chance to discuss ways to get involved in the commission’s work.
Richard Brabner is director of the UPP Foundation.