Student Futures Commission sets out six-point plan for universities

The commission says students in higher education need better mental health support and help to improve employability

The scale of the challenge to help students in the aftermath of the pandemic demands each university produce a comprehensive strategy covering education, wellbeing and employability, a report warns. 

The report produced by the Student Futures Commission, chaired by Mary Curnock Cook, has recommended universities urgently write “Student Futures Manifestos”, outlining “concrete actions” by September 2022. 

The commission polled more than 2,000 students, finding that 73% felt the pandemic harmed their mental health and 57% that it left them ill-prepared for the academic demands of their course. Half (52%) told the commission they were below where they academically expected to be. 

The commission was established by the UPP Foundation. 

More than eight in 10 (85%) said they struggled to make friends, and most (48%) were pessimistic about their job opportunities upon graduating. 

The figures – combined with other national studies by leading polling companies and HE sector bodies – point to “the tragedy and disruption of the pandemic”, according to Curnock Cook. She warned that students of all backgrounds but especially disadvantaged ones have “low confidence” in their social skills, academic abilities, progress and futures. 

To adequately respond, the commission recommends universities do more to support students before they start their course and then, upon their arrival, offer induction programmes that follow them into their final year of study. 

Students in their second and third years were statistically the least likely to identify as recipients of adequate university support. Though 62% of freshers felt comfortable seeking mental health help from their university, between 44-47% of second and third-year students said the same. The commission recommends universities join the Student Mental Health Charter and implement “induction into university life for each year of study”. 

To help students develop skills and a sense of community, universities must provide classes and support societies designed to achieve this. Extracurricular activities should be “the core rather than a fringe” to university study, recommends the report. Particular effort is needed to aid disadvantaged student engagement after surveys of students’ unions found this demographic was the most likely to have withdrawn from university life. 

I will cut and paste [the commission recommendations] for my own team as we continue to navigate our way forward from the pandemic
– Prof Sir Chris Husbands, Sheffield Hallam University

Universities must also devise long-term strategies for online teaching and learning. Universities revealed to the commission that “IT teams are spending too much of their resource to keep legacy systems working”. The report reports a picture of “unmodernised data systems” that hinder the move to “new, modern cloud-based applications” that could revolutionise teaching and assessment. Replacing “outdated legacy IT” should be a spending priority in most universities, recommends the commission. 

According to its survey, the commission says 70% of students “strongly” support recorded in-person lectures – but student opinions on seminars are less conclusive, with an equal share (34% and 35%) preferring either in-person or hybrid online/in-person sessions as the norm. The report also calls on universities to remedy the digital divide, which requires all students have stable internet connections, suitable hardware, and appropriate study spaces to make learning inclusive.  

The commission says the student futures manifestos it calls for must address employment fears. A third of those surveyed by the commission said they were satisfied their university had offered them sufficient support finding employment or work experience in the last 12 months. 

Students said prioritising placements or internships (45%) and opportunities for a year in industry (32%) would be most valuable. Help with writing CV and applications also received strong support from those surveyed (31%). 

There were recommendations for sector bodies, too. 

The government should fund the Office for Students to offer the sector in England a “competitive grant pot, to which universities make flexible bids” for new mental health programmes. An organisation such as Advance HE should undertake a national scoping exercise to develop a nationally recognised blueprint for blended learning – while Jisc should establish a new technology infrastructure project to find cost-effective and sustainable digital systems for the future. 

Prof Sir Chris Husbands, vice-chancellor Sheffield Hallam University, said: “The six themes in this report are spot-on, well thought out and crisply expressed. They provide clear pointers for a sector thinking its way into what will be a very different future. I will cut and paste them for my own team as we continue to navigate our way forward from the pandemic.”

Alison Johns, chief executive of Advance HE, said: “We welcome the Student Futures Commission’s report and the recommendation for Advance HE to review ‘what works’ in effective online teaching and learning and assessment. 

“This complements both our commitment in our Strategy 2021-24 to ‘Enhance teaching and learning for student and institutional success’, which specifically includes flexible teaching, learning and assessment strategies that optimise the use of emerging technologies, and our current work in Flexible learning in higher education.”

Jisc chief executive Heidi Fraser-Krauss said she would “action any Jisc-related recommendations to help support universities in modernising digital infrastructure as well as digitally transform learning, teaching and assessment”. 

“As we move towards established models of hybrid learning, we have an opportunity to transform education through technology,” she continued. “Never have digital, data and technology been so important in meeting the multiple challenges and opportunities that UK universities face.”

Read more: Return to face-to-face teaching is students’ priority, poll finds

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