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As concerns grow over students’ mental health, undergraduate Alice Wright highlights some of the realities of being a university ‘fresher’ and the problems that she says universities are largely ignoring - including unsafe drinking habits, loneliness and a lack of belonging.
Starting university is something that is immortalised through literature and film, the idealised start of a young adult’s life. Fleeing the nest and finding yourself are the over-depicted clichés. However, this often tumultuous time in people’s lives can be far from idyllic. From my experience it was anything but.
I arrived at halls, instead of the little flat I had imagined, and was greeted with long, expansive, seemingly never-ending corridors of identical doors, like a Premier Inn. After my parents left, I looked out of the window onto the courtyard below, a huge group of smoking flare-wearing first-years were talking confidently. Either they already knew each other before or were brave enough to enter the fray hiding their nerves behind a cigarette. As I didn’t smoke, or really drink, and feeling disorientated, I couldn’t bring myself to introduce myself to such an enormous group.
That evening the event to attend was a specific club night. I was young for my academic year and having only just turned 18 I hadn’t been clubbing before. The extent of my alcohol experience was a glass of wine with dinner, or one or two gin and tonics. I was not prepared for the wild excess of binge-drinking and readily available drugs going on around me. Before we left ‘pre’s’ there was talk of a ‘legend’ who had just done a shot of vodka through his eyeball. I’ve never been someone swayed by peer-pressure but the ubiquitous nature of this experience left me feeling isolated and that there was something wrong with me.
Upon arriving at the Club I initially presumed the scenes shocked me out of novelty, but as the night progressed the members of our group dropped off like flies for either a) Excessive vomiting b) Escorted from a premises c) Passing out whilst everyone flaps around them as if they've just contracted malaria. In my opinion if a night ends with being escorted out of McDonald’s by security, that is a new low. The dangers of such excess have been highlighted recently by the death of Ed Farmer, a Newcastle University student who died during a society initiation .
The overwhelming experience of moving to a new city, not knowing anyone and learning to look after myself properly for the first time, really affected me. If I were asked to describe myself I would say someone reasonably confident with a wide spanning academic interest and a genuine zest for life. In those first months of university - somewhere meant to harness and allow these qualities to flourish - I became lonely, depressed and cripplingly insecure. I spent many days hardly leaving my tiny white-washed room and or sitting in lecture halls of more than three hundred people wondering why I seemed to be the only one without someone to sit next to. I travelled home for as many weekends as I could manage.
What struck me is that nobody noticed my poor attendance, my unhappiness and nobody offered to help. I had one meeting with someone from the university that year - one. The compulsory personal tutor meeting to register for matriculation is the only compulsory check-in for students and it is not even pastorally orientated. Other help available is under-funded and inadequate. For example, at my university there are around four counsellors for 33,000 students. The counselling service website claims “We support the mental health of all students at the University, using short-term counselling and referral to other services”. I know for a fact that the use of “all” is inaccurate and by other services it refers to an app. An app to deal with the mental health of young developing minds is grossly inadequate.
Further to this, those struggling are not always going to be the ones proactively seeking help. In my experience loneliness came with a shame of feeling lonely. The myth of starting university propagates that you will find your friends for life immediately. Thus having not done so made me feel like a failure. I was embarrassed and I wasn’t going to tell someone that I hadn’t made friends. I felt that would mean there was something wrong with me. Secondly, I didn’t know who to ask: services are small, inadequate, underfunded and badly advertised to those who may be struggling.
There needs to be more check-ins with new students in those early months. This is something that may be seen as unnecessarily compulsory for adults and even patronising. However, it is worth it if we could save a struggling first year who hasn’t been asked how they are coping since they arrived. As the parents of a university student who took his own life in 2016 said, 18 is just a number, students are still young and developing . Becoming a legal adult overnight does not always transform young people into being capable of looking after themselves with zero external support.
In my second year what turned it around for me was sport. I had never been particularly sporty at school but having felt so low I reached back into my past, to a time when I remembered being very happy and life felt full. So I psyched myself up and entered the daunting world of the Sports Fair, found the equestrian stand and soon found myself on a team. This was the first time I had felt a sense of belonging to the University, that I was part of something bigger and somebody would know if I disappeared. With my first piece of branded sports kit I felt instantly better. I met a group of lovely girls with a common interest and being part of the Club allowed me to socialise with others through sports events, a world I had previously felt excluded from.
I would also be remiss if I did not mention the one professor who made the class talk to the person next to them, then after five minutes introduce them to the rest of the group. From this five-minute conversation I made my first course friend, who now, two years later, still makes sure my essays are in on time.
If it is so easy to ensure greater integration and care at university, institutions need to make this a priority for the sake of the mental and physical wellbeing of new students.
I have recently attended a meeting with a senior leader of the University to discuss the issues raised in this blog. Whilst I welcome the opportunity for senior leaders to hear from students about the issues discussed in this article, the meeting did not seem to yield any concrete answers for change. Nor did it indicate what the university’s policy is or should be to begin to tackle such issues. I will however be working with the university chaplain in applying for a grant to hopefully establish a central structure for first years to form a social base upon arrival.
Alice Wright is an undergraduate Student and Junior Columnist at The Broad Online: https://thebroadonline.com/author/awright/
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