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Entering the world of Higher Education: More realism about students is needed

Two events this week emphasised the wide chasm that exists in perceptions of fairness in our Higher Education system. The events both inhabited space at either end of the spectrum that spans the student experience. 

There is sense that many people involved in Higher Education policy do not get the illogical nature of how student support currently works. Or worse, want to dismiss the uncomfortable facts. It seems that support is predicated upon the ‘middle-class’ notion that all families provide for their offspring as adults entering Higher Education. This is a given for the majority of families and was reinforced as an idea when Unite Students released the results of their 2019 survey of student attitudes in ‘The New Realists’ this week. In parallel to this was the stark contrast provided by the charity StandAlone, that held a conference in Glasgow and a parliamentary evidence session in Edinburgh, on estrangement amongst students. They effectively punctured the ‘middle class’ assumptions of family support.

Unite Student survey: The New Realists.


Launched on Tuesday, in collaboration with the Higher Education Policy Institute (HEPI) , the report of a survey by Unite Students, ‘The New Realists’, shed some light on the attitudes of new and aspiring students and their motivations in 2019. The quantitative data came from an online survey, comprising of 2,535 applicants and 2,573 first-year undergraduate students in the UK, organised by market researchers ‘Youthsight’. However, it failed badly in addressing many of the pressing issues that StandAlone successfully challenges on behalf of those that they call the ‘Hidden Voices’. ‘The New Realists’ provided few clues for those of us concerned about pressures, attitudes and equal chances for disadvantaged students,

Bearing in mind that the core business of Unite Students lies in student accommodation, the nature of their survey came as a surprise. There is little mention of the accommodation costs and financial pressures that overshadow many students. However, there were some interesting insights into the lives of the majority of students. These seem to reflect a very ‘middle-class’ perspective where many voices are indeed ‘hidden’. Wading through data concerning ‘Identity’ that focussed on questions about how many students have tattoos or dyed of their hair was cringe worthy at best and this was exacerbated by asking them why they changed their appearances. Individuality seems to be a key factor; but this is not a new realism by any stretch. Students have sought independence and a desire to exert their individualism for a long time.

Added since writing: See also just out on the same day as this article 'Are freshers’ week activities too middle class?' by David Kernohan for WonkHE. It is a strong critique of the 'The New realists' survey and report. The use of social class groups based upon ABC1/C2DE binary split of parents from the marketing National Readership Survey (NRS) methodology is criticised as not appropriate for HE surveys. It is noted that "The big problem with the population as a whole is that there are comparatively low numbers of students from a group E background – just under 3.4% of the total." The problem of course is that fewer studets come from these backgrounds and their voices remain diluted to the point of inaudible in such a survey. Perhaps the marketing aproach is more in line with the motivation behind the survey.


But hiding inside the morass of these observations are some other insights of note. The Higher Education Policy Institute (HEPI) reported that students “prioritise financial security (59%) over wealth (13%) or fame (9%)”. Also, that most students want to see lecturers face to face more often and have contact hours well above 10 hours per week. This comes as little surprise to the frontline academic staff in universities, but it is a wake-up call for managers, greatly detached from the reality of teaching, who will need to improve staff numbers and resources. Views on political engagement, mental health, support and their motivation to study are set in the context of students changing as we see the so called Generation Z arrive. The offensive idea that they are somewhat different than those of previous times and seen as over-demanding ‘snowflakes’ is deflated in many parts of the survey.

My view, from teaching students every year since 1980 to retirement in 2017, is that the students are essentially the same. They are the same age every year. They are profoundly optimistic and make the same mistakes year on year. It is the circumstances that change and they naturally react to this. They are the same students reacting to changed circumstances and it is important that we remember this. Back in 2015, when I was interviewed as part of a documentary from ‘Below the Radar TV and commissioned by the BBC, called ‘A University Challenged’, I was asked if the students had changed over that time. My response shown here was instinctive. They have not changed. Students were always optimists and realists – or as realistic as they needed to be in the circumstances.




So who are Unite Students?

It is a commercial operation that provides accommodation for students in many cities across the UK. They are the largest private provider in the UK and are listed on the London Stock Exchange; boasting a share price on their www site alongside the advantages of becoming an investor. Unite Students started as a small venture in Bristol in 1991 and was incorporated as a limited company from 2007 to 2016. It has grown since then into a major Real estate investment trust. Their fast growth in the last ten years has been fuelled by investors buying into a growing market fuelled by more students funded by government loans. It has all of the hallmarks of a massive ‘bubble’ waiting to burst. However, Unite Students has the advantage of considerable assets in its high end student accommodation and substantial capital in a large property portfolio. The profit is generated from over 40,000 student rooms.

The perception of a raw commercial mission of the Investment Trust has been offset to a degree from 2012 with the formation of a charitable trust, The Unite Foundation. Some profits are diverted into providing free accommodation and a cost-of-living allowance to students from ‘challenging circumstances’. This specifically means those students coming from care or estranged from their families. However, whilst a valuable lifeline for those students fortunate enough to get support, the efforts amount to a drop in the ocean. Their own ‘Impact Report’ from this year reveals that only a few hundred students are supported; 344 scholarships since 2012 with 90 awarded in 2019. Thus, the overall impact on a widespread problem is somewhat trivial. However, it’s utility lies in bringing the issue to the fore for policy makers and should alert government to its own failings. The model should be expanded further into wider student support. But it does beg the question as to why universities themselves are not organising more accommodation rather than bending in the wind of privatisation.

The Save the Student accommodation survey of March of this year provides more ‘realism’ in a better view of students and their accommodation. The results in the ‘National Student Accommodation Survey 2019’ show that 54% are in private landlord accommodation. Some of this is very poor and often exploits students for whom ‘high end’ is too much to pay. Indeed accommodation emerges as one of the key challenges for students with no family support

Hidden voices and StandAlone.

In contrast to the voices of the majority heard in the Unite Students survey, the Stand Alone Conference ‘Focus on Family Estrangement’ delved into the world of students with no family support. The academic conference, lasting two days at Strathclyde University in Glasgow, devoted time to explore many issues and was joined by presenters from Canada and the USA. The commonality of pressures on individuals across countries permeated the discussion. These included financial stress and constant worries, the need to seek employment and the emotional trauma that many experience. It is important that we know that the issues transcend all levels of perceived advantage and are not confined to families of fewer means. The causes are many and varied. Parents that are abusive, have criminal records, suffer drug and alcohol abuse, exert emotional control, issue threats and disapproval of the choices made will certainly impact on student wellbeing. This is magnified by the natural desire of students themselves to exert some degree of independence in their lives as they end up estranged from ‘home’. The main lesson is that ‘estranged’ is an unfamiliar word. Students might identify more with the ideas of ‘independent’ and lack of a home or ‘homeless. Home is not a concept that means much as they flit from the reality of different rooms and flats between bouts of ‘sofa surfing’. The system often penalises those who are deemed to have family means by offering lower bursary or loan finance. Even those with maximum grants and loans need to find more finance. This propels them into many hours of part-time work (see TEFS 9th August 2019 ‘Students working in term-time: Challenging the ‘disadvantage’ shibboleth’). Holidays become a nightmare as they need to find and pay for accommodation and are perpetually insecure without a home to go to. StandAlone has provide a beacon of hope as more universities sign up to their StandAlone Pledge to recognise such students and give them more support and year round help.

The central role of accommodation and sense of ‘home’.

This was addressed in uncomfortable testimonies from four students in an event, ‘Students Estranged from Family: Focus on Accommodation’ at the Scottish Parliament on Wednesday. The biggest worry and cost for students is accommodation but the discussion became more wide ranging. The event was kindly sponsored by MSP Gillian Martin who is from the SNP in government. In a packed room, she was joined by colleagues Alasdair Allen, Maureen Watt and Sandra White alongside former Scottish Labour Leader and science teacher, Iain Gray and Ross Greer of the Green Party. The Minister for Further Education, Higher Education and Science (Richard Lochhead) sent his apologies but he should have been present. Notable was the absence of any of the thirty one Conservative MSPs, perhaps they were too ‘fearty’. This was a shame as we were informed of a hidden ‘realism’ that has been around for far too long.

The four students presented very different reasons why they became ‘estranged’. Family breakup, threats, outing as gay, abuse, alcoholism, poverty, mental health and an imprisoned parent emerged as underlying causes. However, the bravery and determination of these very intelligent individuals shone through. Alongside the lack of a place to call ‘home’ and any emotional support stood the looming problem of accommodation. Having no means to provide a guarantor and paying rent for months upfront are major hurdles exacerbated by the imperative of finding funds through part-time jobs. No family support has multiple consequences. The lessons are being learned by some universities but there is much to learn. Gillian Martin stated at the outset that, as a Further Education lecturer for thirteen years, she had not realised that students could be estranged from family. This seems unlikely, but I can confirm that this has been the experience of many of my colleagues in a university. Most had no idea of the extent of the problems and avoided asking their struggling students the ‘magic’ question, “Is there anything else you want to tell me?”

More realism is needed.

Lacking in the discussion was the idea that independent students struggle in their studies and may attain lower grades and degrees. Many worries and loss of time must have consequences and this needs to be addressed urgently. The room needed to be reminded that that the four students represented success stories of individuals who had shown almost incredible determination in adversity. They had managed to navigate the byzantine maze of support available through a combination of persistence and sheer luck. They are at the tip of an iceberg and there
are many more ‘casualties’ of a system that wrongly assumed that family support is to be expected. But ‘one casualty should be one casualty too many’.
Mike Larkin, retired from Queen's University Belfast after 37 years  teaching Microbiology, Biochemistry and Genetics.

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