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The Secret Life of Students: From Faraday to the Interrail Generation

An excellent meeting earlier this week was organised by WONKHE in the marvellous setting of the Royal Institution lecture theatre. The discussion revolved around ‘The Secret Life of Students’. My immediate thoughts go to the ghost of Michael Faraday listening from his laboratory in the basement. What would he be thinking?

Much of the technology in the room would not be there without his discoveries. Yet he might wonder how many scientists were attending the meeting or, failing that, understand the science behind the technology. Equally, bearing in mind he educated himself from a poor background, he might wonder about why, in the intervening 200 years, there is still a discussion of how to ensure greater equality of opportunity.

The meeting itself has been reported by WONKHE in great detail and this is of considerable credit to them. An excellent summary is posted on its www site at: ‘What happened at The Secret Life of Students?’

Only the lonely.

The backdrop to the meeting was publication of a survey carried out by Trendence UK for WONKHE called ‘Only the lonely - loneliness, student activities and mental wellbeing at university’. This provides us with a timely and fascinating insight into the various realities within which students go about their studies and the varied causes of isolation and loneliness. The research was conducted as a “student lifestyle research” online survey in January 2019 using the Trendence UK student panel database. There were 1,615 responses received from 103 universities.

The urgency behind the WONKE survey arises from a wider Office for National Statistics report in 2018 that delved into the experiences of loneliness amongst children and young people (see Loneliness - What characteristics and circumstances are associated with feeling lonely? Analysis of characteristics and circumstances associated with loneliness in England using the Community Life Survey, 2016 to 2017). Of the 9.8% aged 16-24 who said that they often or always felt lonely, the largest proportion was in the 18-20-year old group. These are the most likely to have “undergone a major life change in the past year, such as transitioning into university or work.”

The pressures put upon young people 
are further revealed by the latest WONKHE/ Trendence UK report and some surprises emerged. Of those that responded, 45.1% said that their parents or guardians did not attend university. However, 1.5% (or 24 students) declared that they didn’t know. Thirty eight percent of those that declared a disability indicated it was a mental health condition.

Less surprising was the list of main concerns that followed a familiar pattern. Top of the list was coping with the course at 55.1%. This was followed by time (48.6%), mental health and stress (45.5%) and having enough money to get by (45.3%). Lower down comes those with problems finding part-time work (12.2%) and living environment (accommodation & transport) (7.3%). Those lonely on a daily basis made up 15.8% and only 16.6% said they were never lonely.

The reasons for not 'fitting in' are numerous and range across having to commute, having time constraints such as part-time jobs, not meeting the expectations of student’s clubs, not wanting to join the drinking culture and not wishing to travel to accommodation late at night. It is clear that universities will have to do more to make the experience more inclusive. But then it is not down to universities to find the resources needed from the fees of better off students. The government is putting too much onus on Universities and their staff to solve problems of their making in a climate of diminishing resources.

The student viewpoint.

The greatest strength in the WONKHE/Trendence UK report lies in the personal statements made by the students. They paint a colourful picture of modern student life. Some of their concerns have been around for a long time, others are more recent. The hope is that our decision makers at all levels take time to read all of these. Comments describing the reasons behind being prevented from taking part in activities included; “Anxiety and a long commute home; No time due to course workload and part-time job; Not being able to afford my way through university due to having a shit student maintenance loan" particularly resonated with me.  Although the sentiment behind “Private schooled students tend to have better sports training, so are too difficult to play against” was not something that deterred me in football at least.

The Interrail generation.

Access to activities in groups, such as touring Europe on an Interrail Pass, are part of the 'transition' for many students. However, for some it is a pipe dream and they are excluded. The feeling of isolation I experienced as a student was caused simply by lack of money and this is a major factor today in excluding students from such activities.

My experience was that I declined more often than not if friends wanted to go out, as I had little money to spread over a term. Problems with finding a term-time job did not exist in 1973 in a science course that had 32 hours contact time in lectures, practical classes and tutorials topped off by around 20 hours independent work. Sport was a way out of this and I was fortunate to be able to play football in a college team in the London Commercial League (founded in 1912 it finally expired in 2016) at no extra cost. All ‘holidays’ were spent securing employment to save enough to return the following year.

As a result, there was a form of ‘social apartheid’ operating amongst the students when it came to fitting into communal and social activities. This came to a head at the end of my first year when some ‘friends’ asked if I would join their European tour that summer using an Interrail pass. These were low cost rail passes for young people valid for a month across Europe. They are still widely used today by students able to afford the costs and having the time to do so. To them the cost was very low. For me it was far too much and the trip would have entailed that depicted on the cover picture. This was a moment that defined my career and the social divergence it brought with it. I spent the holidays returning to my roots and carrying out industrial jobs in and around Coventry.

The government position rarely changes.

The speech by the Minister of State for Universities, Science, Research and Innovation, Chris Skidmore, at the WONKHE conference ploughed a familiar furrow that is the trademark of the current government (‘A STEP further for students’). In early May, we will pass the ten-year mark of a Conservative-led government and Skidmore’s own election to parliament. Yet there are still few references to meaningful actions planned from government. Indeed, asking universities to plan for going bust is included in the now familiar transference of responsibility. His reference to “Student Protection Plans” is actually a complaint that most institutions do not appear to have a plan in place for students in case their university goes bust. If they do, then they are not telling students.

After reminding the audience of the ‘exsanguinating’ obvious with, “if you take students out the equation, then you take away the very reason behind our universities’ existence” he describes what he calls the three STEPS in higher education. These are simply seen as Student Transition, the University Experience and Progression. In more obvious practical terms it is going to university, surviving to graduate and getting a job afterwards.

His approach was mostly descriptive and summarises the many problems and approaches he has seen in his tour of UK universities. His observation of the ‘Meet and Greet’ service at the airport for international students by my old employer, Queen’s University Belfast is heartening, but I assume many others do likewise. One hopes that he also met with the determined teaching staff that make Queen’s an especially supportive place for the many students with problems.

The picture of universities he paints has been layered on the canvas of universities taking all responsibility and where they might do better. Through the Office for Students, the government simply regulates their activity. It offers little in the way of leadership or solutions or, indeed, finance. An exception noted is the ‘Principles to guide HE providers on improving care leavers access and participation in HE’ policy paper which sets out “what we expect higher education providers to be doing to tend to the needs of care leaver students." This is welcome in finally recognising the plight of such students, but simply demands that universities offer help to such students with
little added resource. It offers nothing to others estranged from their families or with little or no family support.

Also mentioned was the Student Minds task force recently announced, ‘Government creates new student mental health taskforce’. This is largely an information gathering exercise that will also make further unfunded demands upon universities.

One slight glint of light in the speech came with “It’s safe to say the transition to higher education can be a daunting one – not just for students leaving home and starting to live independently, but also for students choosing to stay on in the family home and, perhaps, beginning to juggle work and family life with the demands of being a student.” It is the first time in many years that I have seen acknowledged by a minister that w
ork might interfere with studies. However, the statement implies that only those staying at home have to contend with this. By now he will have read the WONKHE/ Trendence UK report and might consider changing his position.

The ghost of Faraday in the basement.
When teaching students over many years, I often reminded myself of the wisdom of Michael Faraday, “Lectures which really teach will never be popular; lectures which are popular will never really teach.” The balance in maintaining standards whilst risking unpopularity was ever present. Also came the dilemma of maintaining a standard and pushing students when some might not have time to complete the work required and others have plenty of time. There never seemed to be a 'right' or 'wrong' answer. Michael Faraday also advised us that “A man who is certain he is right is almost sure to be wrong.” Politicians might take note of this and consider that Faraday also said “There’s nothing quite as frightening as someone who knows they are right.” I truly hope his ghost was listening from the basement.

Mike Larkin, retired from Queen's University Belfast after 37 years teaching Microbiology, Biochemistry and Genetics.


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