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Back to the future

Mary Curnock Cook reports on how students have been faring since Covid

It has been a year since the publication of a major report on the effects of the coronavirus pandemic on students, which seems a good time to reflect on progress.

The UPP Foundation’s Student Futures Commission, which I chair, set out to understand what impact the pandemic had on aspiring and current students and to crowdsource pragmatic solutions from the sector—and from students—about how to get student futures back on track.

We identified an underlying crisis of confidence among students, who were worried about their personal and professional relationships, had growing imposter syndrome because of what they thought of as ‘fake grades’ from school, were worried about graduate jobs and had fragile mental health in the face of the anticipated stretch they expected from their higher education. Months of loneliness and of isolation from the norms of student life had taken their toll.

Challenging times

The thick of the Covid pandemic might feel like a distant nightmare, but while the context has changed, the challenges for students have changed less than everyone might have wished. Reports from around the sector indicate that attendance has been challenging this year, student support and mental health services have been under increasing pressure and more students are behind or failing in their academic progress, with a resultant uptick in dropouts.

The hangover from Covid, a perma-crisis of spiralling costs of food and energy, war in Ukraine, geopolitical instability and industrial action (including in universities themselves) have combined to turn the carefree intellectual journey that students may have imagined into an increasingly anxious, demanding and in some cases unaffordable challenge. Our key recommendations from a year ago feel just as relevant today.

The diagram below shows the subtle framing shifts that the commission’s work in 2021 identified.

covid framing sunday reading

Of these, the strongest echoes that I hear across the sector relate to two interconnected themes: belonging, and co-creation with students.

‘Belonging’ may not be a new concept but it has become part of the central discourse about student engagement. It was featured in a major piece of research conducted by Pearson. Co-creation with students—or ‘students as partners’—has become a mainstream approach to effecting change and action across universities. I was delighted to notice the words ‘co-creation’, ‘co-production’ and ‘students as partners’ popping up in my judging task for almost every entry to a university employability strategy award recently.

Some 30 universities have signed up to create student futures manifestos to capture and communicate the ways in which, with students, they could commit to securing successful student futures. I’m looking forward to attending the launch of one next month. This year, the UPP Foundation will be hosting a series of regional meetings and workshops with those who committed to developing a manifesto, as well as those that are adopting some or all of the Student Futures Commission pledges. This will provide welcome opportunities to update and refresh our approach.

Cross-sector teamwork

My engagement with the sector following the commission’s work has given me new insights. Talking to hundreds of colleagues through engagement with, for example, the Association of Graduate Careers Advisory Services, the Higher Education Institutional Research network, the Association of Heads of University Administration, the Change Agents’ Network and the Chartered Association of Business Schools, as well as several universities, only amplified how important focusing on successful student futures is.

Clearly, commitment to successful student futures resonates throughout and across university functions, within professional services and academic teams alike.

New to me was the university technician community and the Talent programme, designed to increase the visibility of university technicians. These professionals, who work in close proximity to students, often play pivotal support roles and have a unique insight into the prevailing mood in student cohorts.

One debate, with the Higher Education Institutional Research network, centred on whether to evaluate the impact of student futures manifestos or whether they represented something more akin to a cultural movement that should be allowed to flourish organically. Would they be more successful without the constraints of research and evaluation? Would this give students more agency and fewer boundaries within which to imagine their future selves?

Blended learning

In the backdrop to all these conversations were ongoing debates about blended learning, government calls for a return to face-to-face teaching and a reminder that the general public still believes that university teaching takes place almost entirely in lectures. Low attendance at some lectures and other face-to-face events, coupled with a steady stream of press stories bemoaning the insufficiency of online learning in universities, was undoubtedly challenging.

Students, it seems, want both—especially since many more of them are juggling part-time work to help pay the bills or have disabilities and caring responsibilities that make it hard for them to get to classes on campus. Some still lack the confidence to interact with peers and academics, and they vote with their screens to stay away.

Universities are working hard to accommodate these variable preferences, and this has, once again, highlighted the difficulty of presenting a digital or flexible model when many still lack the fundamental technology infrastructure needed. Digital transformation strategies are being prioritised or reimagined, with knock-on effects for facilities and estates, requiring costly modernisation of technology infrastructure.

The university sector has always been resilient in times of challenge, but everything points to the need for more investment. In these difficult times, the current fees and funding settlement, frozen in England until 2025, may not stretch to deliver what students want and need to secure a successful future.

Mary Curnock Cook is chair of the UPP Foundations Student Futures Commission.

A version of this article appeared in Research Europe