Going to university – the same but different

Graham Cooper, head of education at Capita Education Software Solutions, asks if there has ever been a more turbulent time in higher education

The Augar review, OfS inspection changes, student experience, university rankings, Subject level TEF, ‘grade inflation’, fees and value for money, data futures, student wellbeing, learning analytics… I could go on. It’s great to live in interesting times but I think there is possibly a bit too much happening at the moment.

In three months, it will be 35 years since I arrived, fresh faced, at Manchester University to study biochemistry. I came from a small rural town and arrived in the big city – excited, scared and bewildered at the place I found myself in. I doubt that my results of B, C and E at A level would get me anywhere near that course now. I remember having to telephone the admissions office the day my results came out to see if they would still have me. Thankfully the door was still open.

I was lucky, but not just because they let me in.

I made some great friends, a handful of whom I’m still in touch with today. Last year, we had a reunion at our first-year hall of residence and stayed in the very same rooms we had been in all those years ago. As far as I could remember, my room in Owens Park, Fallowfield had the same fixtures and fittings and looked almost identical to how it appeared 35 years ago. The only difference was there was a wired internet point. Back then we had one payphone between 30 students in Little Court 7 – no mobile phones for us.

I was disconnected from, home, family and school friends, in a strange city (I had never seen anything like the curry mile in Rusholme that I walked through every day to lectures) and I was really struggling badly with my mathematics for biochemists subsid course – I only had CSE grade 1 maths (see this table for what that level of maths is equivalent to). I do remember feeling as though I was going to fail everything because of my lack of mathematical prowess and getting very fed up about it.

So, here’s my question… Despite the internet, our 24/7 always connected culture and more socially savvy, globally aware youngsters, is arriving and thriving at university any different today compared to how it was for me 35 years ago?

The answer, of course, is probably ‘yes’. Having seen my own two children do it, students can find out much more about their university in advance on Unistats. When thinking about what I wanted to do at university, I just liked the sound of Manchester and studying Biology and Chemistry at school, hence I chose Biochemistry – not the best degree selection process. Today’s students can discuss everything on The Student Room or join WhatsApp and Facebook groups for students who will be arriving at the same time as them, effectively making friends before they even get to their hall of residence or first lecture. Many universities provide a digital welcome and online information that today’s student population demand based on their experiences in other parts of their lives.

But sadly, for some students this does not help, and they do not have the stimulating, fulfilling and memorable experience of going to university that many of you reading this will be able to reflect on. That’s why, of all the issues I listed at the start of this piece, although each on own is important, one stands out to me and is worth universities really focussing on above the others – student wellbeing.

There are too many stories in the news of students who are lost, who are lonely and who are not happy about being at university. With the pressure of making new friends, meeting new people, becoming accustomed to methods of teaching and learning that are different from those of their school, coupled with being in a different city, it can lead to depression and worse.

Last week I saw a news item about a university that is going to use technology to start tracking student social media to look for signs of students with depression and at risk of suicide. This may be a headline grabbing angle to using data to support student wellbeing, but it is true that universities are beginning to use learning analytics to maximise the role that data can play in improving student wellbeing and ultimately their success.

But it’s not easy, and that’s not just because of the technical challenges involved. Each of us can probably remember a case in our personal lives when someone on the end of a phone has told us, “Sorry, I can’t tell you that, it’s against data protection.” Or, as part of our jobs we have hesitated or refused to share some data with someone else because of data protection. The recent introduction of the GDPR legislation has heightened everyone’s sensitivity to this.

But wait.

What about sharing data between university departments and their systems when it might have a direct result on identifying disaffected students at risk? I’m not saying any institution should drive a coach and horses through the GDPR rules or fail to make students aware that they will collect and pool data from a range of systems such as their library, VLE and student information systems to help support them and identify those who are less engaged or at risk of becoming disaffected. But, I am saying that universities should be much bolder about doing something in this area that works to safeguard students at risk.

Although colleagues at Jisc are doing some excellent work in supporting universities in this area with their learning analytics service , last year I chaired a roundtable debate with university registrars and CIOs, which looked at the challenges universities face in becoming data-driven institutions, much of which focussed on the challenges of joining up legacy systems and considered the frustrating prevailing climate in universities that can mitigate against effective data sharing to support student wellbeing.

Since then, much has been written and discussed on the subject of breaking down the barriers to the effective use of data to support student wellbeing. I and a colleague, Nick Waters, shared our views on why universities should be bold and build capacity and capability in the area of learning analytics into their data strategy. And, it is a journey that we at Capita Software, as leading providers of student information and analytics solutions to the higher education sector are keen to support.