Preparing for 2022’s new students
9 August 2022
Our latest episode of Accommodation Matters explores the findings of our recent applicant survey in more detail, including what this means on the ground, what the sector is doing to prepare for their arrival, and some areas of focus for the future.
It’s almost time for a new group of freshers to arrive at universities across the country, and the Higher Education sector is hard at work preparing for their arrival – so this month’s Accommodation Matters panel weighs in on who this group of students are, what stands out from previous cohorts, how the sector will have to adapt to their needs, and what they themselves are doing to prepare for this year’s new student arrivals.
Host Jenny Shaw is joined by an expert panel made up of:
- Nick Hillman, Director of the Higher Education Policy Institute (HEPI)
- Melissa Browne, Head of Operations at University College London (UCL)
- Jo Blair, Regional General Manager for Scotland at Unite Students
Talking points include supporting the transition to university, cost of living challenges, sustainability and behaviour change, the evolution of the student accommodation sector over time. Panellists also share their tips for what advice they would share with new students.
Accommodation Matters brings sector experts together to discuss the Higher Education sector’s key issues through the lens of student accommodation.
You can subscribe and listen to the episode now on Spotify, Google, Amazon, Apple Podcasts, or below through Podbean. If you enjoy the podcast, please don’t hesitate to leave a 5* review – we’d love to hear from you!
Episode transcript: Preparing for the class of 2022
Jenny Shaw: It’s that time of the year again, when we’re intensively preparing for the new intake of students. For the last two years, we’ve been doing this under a cloud of change and uncertainty and rapid innovation, but now, things are just about back to normal – or are they?
This year, universities and accommodation providers are able to offer their new students a more normal experience, but the experiences of the students themselves have been anything but normal over the last three academic years. They faced online learning, staff shortages, changed or cancelled exams, not to mention restrictions on their social experience at such a key time in their life.
This month, we’re looking forward to the new academic year in the light of the needs of these new students and asking what it all means for student accommodation and beyond. I’m Jenny Shaw. I’m the Higher Education External Engagement Director for Unite Students. As usual, I’ve got a panel of experts with me today. Please, can I ask you each to introduce yourselves and say where you’re joining us from? Nick, can I start with you?
Nick Hillman: I’m Nick Hillman. I’m Director of the Higher Education Policy Institute, an Oxford-based think tank, but I’m speaking to you from Manchester because I’ve been doing an event at the University of Manchester today.
Melissa Brown: My name’s Melissa Brown. I’m Head of Operations at University College London (UCL), and I’m actually sitting on the fourth floor in Bloomsbury, a lovely UCL building.
Jo Blair: Good afternoon – my name’s Jo Blair and I’m currently the Regional General Manager for Unite Students covering Scotland, but I’ll soon be moving to head up the quality and standards department within Unite Students.
Jenny: Brilliant, and where are you joining us from?
Jo: I’m currently joining you from a very wet Aberdeen!
Jenny: Excellent, thank you. Let’s get right into it, and let’s start with these new students themselves – the ones that are arriving for the first time this September. We’ve published our first applicant index this month, and it was designed to provide a profile of this year’s intake of students. I’m going to come around each of you and ask you what stood out to you from that survey. Melissa, can I start with you?
Melissa: Definitely. I absolutely loved this report. Anytime I get reports like this, I literally run towards them because the information is so important, but what I really loved about it is sustainability. A lot of students are really interested in sustainability. In the last couple of years, it’s been more and more at the forefront, and I think as businesses, as organisations we need to catch up with them and actually really be communicating out to them on what we are doing in that arena.
Also, as always, there’s the community element – this need for seeing a diverse community. There were lots of themes that echoed the Living Black at University report. I think again, it’s just seeing that the students are really, really raising the flags for certain issues, and they want to see organisations really being clear about what they’re doing in those spaces.
Jenny: Thanks, Melissa. One of the things that I thought was interesting was that the vast majority – I think it was 83% – are looking forward to making friends from different backgrounds, but only two-thirds said that they’re confident in talking to those from different backgrounds. Now, my daughter made me put that second question in when she read my questions: she said, “Everyone will say they want to make friends from different backgrounds, but who is really ready to do that?” I wondered what you thought about that.
Melissa: It’s so interesting because I have two boys, aged 20 and 18, who seem very confident – but I’ve realised this generation are not as confident as we think they are, and we’ve seen it in some of the things they’ve said about resilience, et cetera. One of the things that we will be working on, and I know we’ll be talking about this later on, is creating more spaces for people to meet. That’s just not pizza parties like everyone normally does. It’s actually encouraging more ways for them to meet and introducing them to others.
Jenny: Yes, and we’ll come back in a minute to talk about what we might do differently for this cohort of students – but Jo, what jumped out for you in these stats?
Jo: There was a few things. I was really pleasantly surprised to see that students for the most part or applicants, for the most part, feel confident about finding employment after university, particularly with the political headwinds being so apparent and so public. The employment market feels like a challenge, but it does actually feel reasonably achievable. I think a few years ago there definitely wasn’t the same sentiment around it.
I think there is a strong desire to build relationships pre-arrival to the accommodation. Now, that wasn’t a surprise because it is a trend that we see pretty strongly actually around our MyUnite app functionality, where the students that don’t know each other can start to build their relationships before they actually arrive in the properties.
Then, unfortunately, the most concerning points for me were around higher levels of social anxiety, imposter syndrome, and the reported increase of eating disorders. I know certainly as a business we are increasing our frontline team members, which has given the students the opportunity to see staff members at the time they would like to see them.
However, our biggest focus in these areas will be around training and supporting our teams towards signposting, helping people access the professional support that they need via national and local bodies, and the trend which points to students seeking more professional and specialist help such as counselling is actually really encouraging.
Lastly, one of the most interesting things I thought was around the reduction of alcohol and drug use. Now, as much as we’ve seen the decline in alcohol use, and that has been documented over the last few years, there actually might be a closing of the loop there where students are maybe less likely to self-medicate and more likely to seek professional support.
Jenny: Yes, that was something we saw last year, wasn’t it? Nick, we’ve worked together over a number of years on applicant work. I wondered what jumped out for you having seen in detail some of those earlier studies.
Nick: The first point I’d like to make is how welcome it is to have an applicant index because we survey students all the time, and we actually know a huge amount about what students think. Quite a lot of them find their experience is not what they expected it to be before they got there, so it’s really important we then go back down the chain to people who haven’t yet reached higher education and say to them, “What do you think it’s going to be like?”
Sometimes, they may be wrong in their expectations and we should help provide more information to them, and sometimes, there may be lessons for how universities run themselves and the expectations applicants have.
The first thing I want to say is how welcome it is that you’ve done this survey, but also that you plan to follow it through in future years so that we can track over time how different cohorts feel, but the finding that I want to pull out, which I’m sorry to say is a depressing finding but one that we need to grapple with is that on quite a lot of the areas you’ve asked about around, 30% of students have given answers that’s really quite worrying.
For example, the question about will you have enough money to live on? About 30% say they don’t think they will. The question about do you feel rejected by others? About 30% say they do feel rejected by others, and even slightly higher than 30% say they’re worried they won’t be able to keep up with others on their course. That’s a minority, but it’s a significant minority of people who are running towards higher education with some pretty big fears. When you drill down, as you do in the report, further and look at personal characteristics, LGB status, for example, whether someone’s disabled or not, the numbers get even worse.
Jenny: Yes, it is a concern. Certainly, the level of anxiety jumped out to me, and I’ve written about that on the HEPI blog that was incredibly high across the board, but you’re right. There does seem to be this group that are vulnerable in different ways.
Melissa: I wonder if it’s following on from COVID, having had two years of real uncertainty; their exams were very disrupted. I wonder if that feeling of anxiety is continuing. I think there needs to be more actual conversation, actually tapping someone on the shoulder and actually saying, “These student services are there,” rather than just leaflets. We need to have more communication and talking.
Nick: One thing that I think is really powerful about this survey – and we do exactly the same with our surveys at HEPI – is that you’ve made the raw data set available for people to work with. Which personal characteristics correlate with bad outcomes or bad perceptions? The data is there for people to play with so that we can all learn new things. Questions that maybe haven’t sprung up inside Unite Students might spring up somewhere else. I would urge people to use this data set because it’s a rich resource now for everybody to use.
Jenny: Yes, I really hope they will as well because as you say, we’re not going to ask all the questions, but we probably want to know the answers to all the questions. It would be great to hear from people who are able to do that analysis.
I was going to ask you as well, Nick, about the academic experience survey that you run with Advance HE. Is there anything that you’ve seen within the current student body, that two-thirds or more of which are still going to be here that perhaps needs to be addressed this year?
Nick: Well, one new question that we added to the 2022 version of the Student Academic Experience survey was on loneliness. We were saddened to see the relatively high proportion of students who feel lonely quite often. Now, that was a new question. We can’t track back and see how it’s changed over time, but certainly, on my visits to universities, I am told regularly that since COVID has dissipated, the level of involvement by students in clubs and societies, and the non-academic parts of student life, is not back yet to where it was.
I think we all need to do as much as we can to reinvigorate the overall student experience. As this survey shows, people want to meet people from different sorts of backgrounds on different courses, from different parts of the world. It’s often in those clubs and societies that that happens. I think there’s an important lesson there for all of us.
Jenny: I think that’s a really good segue into what we should be doing, how we need to be responding to this data. Jo, I’m going to come to you because we’ve done some work on just surveying students who are coming to live with us, just to find out what they’re into. Do you want to say a little bit more about that?
Jo: Yes. We’ve done a pre-arrival survey around people’s likes and dislikes. What’s really interesting is I think we take for granted that everybody wants to make friends and everybody’s going to really like these big group events. What these surveys have really shown us is that every property is so different because of the demographics that are in that property.
You may have a property which is highly international, and there’s a need for very tailored events. History and politics came out of one of my properties as an example. We really want to see events that are around history and politics, whereas we maybe have a first-year undergraduate UK heavy based property, where it’s, “I want a movie night, I want a party. I want big group gatherings, pizza events,” to get to Melissa’s point earlier. It’s really interesting. There’s a lot of information that we have to work with before the students ever walk through the threshold to be able to tailor that experience for that particular demographic in that particular property.
Jenny: What’s new for you this year, Melissa? Is there anything you are doing or dialling up this year?
Melissa: Yes, so integration is a key theme for us. We’re creating a lot of smaller events and a lot of different style events. Even just going for walks in Richmond Park and doing crafting events.
What I’m very interested in introducing and speaking to our Student Experience team about is finance and budgeting – I do think it’s a skill and we should be exposing students to it. I think especially with the cost of living and probably the anxiety they’re feeling from their parents and themselves, when they come to university that you saw it in the report is very important where a lot of the events, I think, are looking at life skills.
I remember when I was a building manager many years ago, very informally, I did a laundry course on how to actually do your whites and blacks, separating it. There were loads of students there. I think sometimes you might think putting on an event like that, no one will show up, but you might be surprised. They’re coming away from home, and they’ve not had to live by themselves.
We’re also really looking at promoting more about sustainability and the actions we’re taking and trying to get them really involved. We’re looking at what sort of pledges that we can make together. We have lots of small focus groups from across all of the sites, from all different demographics to basically say, “Let’s make a commitment together of how we will live together.” Again, that’s picking up from the Living Black at University report as well. I keep going on about it because I do think a lot of the themes from that is really seen in this report as well.
Jenny: Can you say a little bit more about that pledge about how to live together? I think that’s going to be of interest to a lot of people. What is it you’re doing?
Melissa: We started looking at it from a customer service point of view and looking at customer service training and looking at how we can dial up really our staff with their service. Then, what came out of that was we would actually like to create a pledge. The staff were very open to that, about how we would like to serve our residents.
Then, that turned up even higher once the Living Black at University report came out; we looked at community, how we’d like to live together, and it wasn’t just about saying what we’ll give to them but also what we expect back. Currently, we’re looking at how we can put that into the license agreement, but to start off with, we’ll just be introducing it to our 2023 residents.
Jenny: I think we’ll all be watching that with great interest, Melissa. Thank you.
Nick, what are you picking up across the sector as a whole, maybe more widely than accommodation? What are universities looking to do new for their students this year?
Nick: Well, there is a lot of concern because this is the COVID generation. Those who took A-levels this summer or equivalent, it’s their first public exam. This is the cohort whose GCSEs were cancelled. They may not be as well prepared academically. They have in many cases, nervousness around all the other things we’ve been talking about the social side of university life.
The other thing the universities are worried about, of course, is some of these things don’t only go for the incoming freshers in 2023. Some of them also apply to last year’s freshers who had a disrupted year for all the reasons you said at the start plus industrial action on top of that as well. It’d be fantastic if, for example, Freshers Weeks really reached out actually to second and third years, as well as first years because there are elements of the freshers week experience the second and third years missed out on when they were freshers.
The other thing that I think comes through loudly and clearly in your survey is reluctance among applicants to tell their university in advance of particular challenges they may face. You’ve got around a third of applicants with a disability who plan not to tell their university before they get there.
Now, obviously it’s a personal thing and not everybody is obliged to tell their university everything about themselves before they get there, but most universities would love to know that because most universities would like to make sure the support is in place before people get there, and it will reduce their chance of dropping out, for example. It will improve their student experience.
One lesson I took away from your report about this incoming cohort of students is if they can, I would urge them to contact their university, particularly once their place is confirmed. Sometimes, people don’t to tell their university about a challenge they have because they’re worried it will affect how the university treats them. That place is not going to be taken away from you. Tell the university if you feel there’s some particular support you would like and see if they can get that in place for you before you arrive.
Melissa: I so agree with that. How are we able to save our community if we don’t know who’s in our community? I do think that the more information that can be shared with us of how we can support, it’s not even if they tell us how we can support, we can work together. There needs to be a collaboration in this relationship.
Jenny: Yes, absolutely. We did ask as well whether applicants felt that their university could meet their needs. While most of them felt that they could, it wasn’t all of them by any means. There were some demographic differences, but it is there in the data tables. That might be an interesting starting point for universities who do want to reach out and make sure students are feeling confident to disclose.
Nick: Jenny, when we launched the applicant survey with you back in 2019, we had a secondary school teacher come and speak at the event. He said, “We know so much about our pupils. We would actually like to share some of that information with higher education institutions so that they’ve got the support in place.”
Of course, you can’t do that for all sorts of data protection rules and students are adults, but when a child moves from primary school to secondary school, huge thought is put into that transition. When someone moves from secondary school to university, we don’t put the same level of thought into that transition. There may be lessons for us there, obviously respecting the fact that these are adults and respecting data protection requirements because, in the end, it’s in the university’s interests and the students’ interests that it works out.
Jenny: That stayed with me as well. It was Wayne Templeman from St. Bonaventure School in London. It did stick with me how much students are known in their school at such a detailed level, and how much of that is lost when they move to university.
Of course, as you say, they’ve got to be able to give that consent for that to be shared. They may not want to, but there must be something in that transition that would perhaps help to smooth that path, help to build that confidence of being known by the university as well as their school.
Melissa: I think we need to be finding out why they’re not disclosing. I think that’s where the focus should be really because in all cases, when someone doesn’t disclose, it’s because they think there’s going to be a repercussion of that. I would really like to look at the data as well to find out who is not disclosing. Maybe then we can look deeper as to why.
Jenny: Well, I think that’s a question for next year’s survey. I’m going to make a note of that now. I don’t know if you were struck as well, any of you, about what I thought was a relatively high percentage saying that they have an autism spectrum disorder or have Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD). Now, there’s going to be probably some crossover between those two groups, but it was 7% for Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) and 8% for ADHD, which I think was higher than we’ve seen in previous years.
Melissa: Maybe I’m going to contradict myself, is it because they’re more confident to actually disclose that information because actually it’s being spoken about more?
Jo: I think you may be right, Melissa. I think there’s also the element where early diagnosis is probably better, particularly in schools, and that link from school to university. I get that students are adults, but if that could be better managed for students who have particular challenges, whether it be accessibility or an autism challenge as an example that would feel a lot better for that individual in the long term, and probably help their education outcomes as well.
Nick: Of course, we dwelled quite a lot on some of the negative and more worrying aspects that came out of the index, but it is a really positive societal change that people are in general more willing to talk about mental health challenges. You’ve got celebrities doing it, you’ve got parliamentarians doing it. It doesn’t have the stigma that it had certainly when I went to university 30 years ago, and that is something to be celebrated.
Jenny: It absolutely is. I think there’s a great openness among this cohort and we’ve seen that coming over previous cohorts as well. 25% said they were lesbian, gay, or bisexual.
Melissa: Brilliant – they felt comfortable enough to say it. It’s like it’s nothing, which it isn’t.
Jenny: Yes, it’s quite an open generation. Another positive, of course, it’s been mentioned is the commitment to sustainability. Melissa, you mentioned that, didn’t you?
Melissa: Yes, I just keep going on about it because I’m just so fascinated by the fact that they’re ahead of the curve more than organisations, and we get questions all the time, “What are you doing with our waste? Where is all the waste going?” et cetera. They really engage in the UCL campaign for Net-Zero. For me, I’m very interested in getting the students involved because I think if we can get the behaviours of the people that are using the building to be different, it can really make a massive sustainable impact.
Jo: I do some work with the Scottish government from time to time on responsible citizenship. Responsible citizenship is a term that they use a lot and actually, it’s a really engaging term that we are using with our students. It’s a quid pro quo – we can do this, but we need you to support us by doing that, and that’s how you impact the wider picture.
Nick: I don’t sound too much like a grumpy old man, but there was a bit of a distinction between how much the applicant said they cared about issues of sustainability and climate change, and actually whether they lived their day-to-day lives in such a way that reflects that. I think it has some interesting potential policy ramifications. If, for example, students are not thinking about their energy usage very much, what can we do to encourage them to think about their energy usage more? Then that is an interesting area I think for the future.
Melissa: That’s why I’m excited about it, because if they’re actually saying in this report that they are interested in that area, then it makes when we go to them to say, “Please help us,” then there should be more engagement.
Jenny: It is such an interesting point. I asked a younger colleague and she said, “Well, I think it’s because younger people are very much focused on what it is that big companies are doing, and feeling that compared to that, why should we make the sacrifices when it’s big organisations that need to step up?”
I think what we’ve been talking about what we’re doing, is how we say: “This is what we commit to. This is what we do, and then this is how you do your bit as well and it makes a difference.”
Jo: When I grew up, sustainability wasn’t a thing. Prince Charles was talking about talking to plants – at the time, everybody thought he was in a very strange world, but how times have changed. Certainly, we do see some students that haven’t come from a background where recycling – as an example – is even thought about. We also have some cultural differences where in some countries, it really isn’t thought about. We’ve also got to do that bit of unwinding habitual behaviours.
Nick: I know it’s a little bit out of vogue relative to 10 years ago, but I also wonder whether the nudge theory has something useful to tell us here. What ‘nudging’ tells us is if we know our own behaviour was out of kilter with norms or best practice, then we try to change our behaviour to bring it more into line with others. If, for example, we know we use far more energy than other people like us, telling somebody that is useful and then you can change your behaviour. I wonder whether there’s scope for maybe reinvigorating nudge approaches in some of this space.
Jenny: I’m sure you’re right. I think, Jo, you mentioned international students. They certainly scored lower on the sustainability questions compared to UK students. There may be a bit of nudging to do there as well.
Nick: We had a very interesting dinner on environmental awareness where we had some bursars from Oxbridge colleges. They were actually quite critical. They said, “Look, students beat us up all the time to disinvest fossil fuels and invest elsewhere.” They said, “In all honesty, that’s dead simple. You just tell your investment managers to move the funds from one place and put them to another place.” Actually, it’s some of the other stuff that affects our day-to-day lives. It’s much harder.
We shouldn’t pretend any of this is as simple, but if all of us change our behaviour, you can have a dramatic impact towards net zero.
Jenny: The pandemic has obviously affected our sector, whether that be student accommodation or higher education in general over the last three years. What are the challenges that are facing student accommodation this year? Jo, can I come to you first on that?
Jo: I think similar to most businesses in the world, we’re all feeling the worldwide pain of finding staff to fit in with that business culture. We’ve got issues with suppliers. I mean, who knew that a boat getting stuck in a canal would have such ramifications? We’ve got increasing costs, underlying things happening in Europe, the wider world. You’ve got the fallout from Brexit still going on as well as the recovery from COVID.
It’s all taking time, but from a student accommodation perspective, I think the report clearly tells us applicants are feeling less confident. We’ve discussed that headline today. One of the key things that sticks out is about having those peer-to-peer difficult conversations they’re really feeling quite anxious around. I think one of the challenges we face as a sector is the need for frontline teams to assist and facilitate the conversation. I also think LGBTQ+ applicants feel less informed, and that links into the need to provide information in ways which people find easy to follow and to access.
Across the sector, we dabble in various social media platforms, and I think there’s a bit around finding that sweet spot of having a presence in the right platform and having the flexibility to change with that. We’ve seen that between Facebook and Instagram as an example where we’re present, we’re supportive, informative, available, inclusive but not intrusive. I think that’s a real challenge, and I think there is a real need to get this right.
Jenny: Thanks, Jo. Melissa, what were your thoughts on this?
Melissa: I think a lot of the challenges that we have involve needing to engage more with the cohort that we have in the buildings. If you read this report, they’re finding it hard to engage. Then on top of that, we also have staff who are themselves very fragile themselves because they’ve had two years of being frontline workers during COVID. They’ve got the cost of living in their own homes, and then they also have to support cohort in the buildings who are fragile as well.
I think the challenge is going to be that humane piece around supporting people’s wellbeing, being there for our staff, and also being mindful, underlining that we’re all fragile if that makes sense. As I said, communication is going to be key, and having those conversations and maybe pausing when someone feels stressed, and saying, “How are you?” I think that’s for students and also for the members of staff as well.
Jenny: Is it time, do you think for maybe a kinder and more supportive leadership?
Melissa: Definitely. We’re going for a real culture change at UCL in our department, which has been amazing because we’re really looking at the way that we lead. I come from a generation which is very task-based. You get things done. There’s your list, tick it off, and that’s where your happiness comes from – but that’s changed now.
I do think in the coming year for our staff, for our students, we really have to bring a bit of humanity into everything that we’re doing.
Jenny: Yes, I completely agree. Jo, we’ve got something similar going on at Unite, haven’t we?
Jo: Yes, absolutely. Within Unite, we’ve gone through quite a large structural change in the business. We put a lot more resource into the frontline teams, management structures and learning around the management structures as well, because it’s dead easy to fix something and go, “Now, you’re the manager of an accommodation building, here’s a set of keys, and crack on.” That’s not the world that we live in. It’s not okay to do that anymore. It’s not appropriate.
As a business, you are investing really heavily in a learning academy essentially and making sure that all the management teams and the front facing teams have all the right levels of support and learning and continual learning as well to be able to provide the most up to date support for the student population, and also around the teams on the ground, also having the knock on of that of getting the right support at the right time when they need it for that particular situation.
Over the last couple of weeks, we’ve been hosting events called Class of 22 where we’re bringing our teams along that journey with us. It’s been really interesting to see that journey because I started in the accommodation world about 20 years ago roughly. That really was the time where you got a set of keys. Off you go. You got paid to take students to nightclubs. I used to get paid to get people drunk, which now when you think about it, it’s just embarrassing. That was the world of student accommodation 20 years ago.
What the great thing is that we’re kind of doing now is we’re actually testing our knowledge and going, “Is that still true about the student population? No, it isn’t. Now, we need to do something about it.”
Jenny: Nick, is this something that you’re seeing more widely across the higher education sector?
Nick: Yes, I think there is more thought being put into leadership in all its guises and governance actually across the sector. It’s difficult, though because there’s so many things coming at you at the same time: financial challenges, inflation, changing student demand, and of course, your original question there about how is the world changing in terms of student accommodation. One thing I worry about this autumn is that there isn’t equal levels of demand across the whole country. In some cities, like Manchester, it will be harder, frankly, to find a bed than other cities.
That is why when I talk to Year 12 and Year 13 students, or their parents, or their teachers, or their careers advisors, I always say, “Think as much about your student accommodation choice as your course choice.” When you look back on your university life, which for me is 30 years ago now, I think as much about my time in my accommodation, the people I met and what I did there than what I did in the lecture halls. I sometimes think people rush into their accommodation choices.
Those students who are worried about belonging at their institution and having a sense of belonging need to make sure if possible that the accommodation choice they make is somewhere where there’s nice social spaces, where there are things organised. Affordability is a huge thing this year as well, so also where you have enough cash left over after you’ve paid your rent that you can have a few nights out, and you’re not spending every penny of your income on your rent, and you’ve got money to do other stuff as well.
We don’t talk enough about maintenance. I try not to condemn the government to often when there’s no one from government to defend themselves and explain what they’re doing, but I do think it’s outrageous that the maintenance support package this year for home students is going up by such a small sum when inflation is running at 10%. It’s going to make those sorts of challenges that you were just talking about greater, and it will affect a greater number of students.
It’s almost random how policymakers decide how big each year’s maintenance support package should be. That’s something that will mean universities have to confront a set of issues and problems that wouldn’t have been there if inflation wasn’t 10%.
Jo: Yes, it’s something that we definitely are seeing in Scotland as well. I know in the universities up in Scotland, there’s a lot of conversation around cuts in funding and what that means. We definitely see that on the frontline as well where students are either not understanding how to get hardship funds, or they aren’t getting the hardship funds they need.
Nick: There sometimes more help available from universities than people realise. In fact, one of the results in your survey is that students or applicants would like to know a bit more about university support services before they arrive on day one. It’s a tragedy. Sometimes, people drop out of university for all sorts of good reasons, so on the wrong course, their life changes, but it is an absolute tragedy if someone drops out just because they haven’t got enough money to buy the next day’s food or pay the next week’s rent.
Very often, universities will help you in those circumstances. There’s one message worth conveying to applicants who are worried about all sorts of things. It’s that all people inside every university in the country want to help you when you really face a brick wall. Don’t just go home, ask for help.
Jenny: That’s an excellent point, Nick. Thank you. Final question – if there is one thing that you would like this new cohort of students to know, what would it be? Melissa, can I start with you?
Melissa: I feel I’ve said this a few times, but I think I would like them to know to engage, engage, engage from day one, to even if they feel like, “I’m too tired, I don’t want to go to the event downstairs,” go. You will meet someone. You can meet your best friend for life.
Even if you feel like, “I’m shy. I don’t know how to mix with people,” go. There will always be someone that feels exactly like you who feels shy as well, but it’s almost like creating a habit for yourself because as the first couple of months that you’re in student accommodation and you arrive there, it can be overwhelming but soon, your studies will start and you’ll be really engrossed in that.
What you need to do is build that habit of reaching out, of talking, of communicating, and just even if you come down to the front desk every day and just say hi so that when you do need to speak to someone, and you do feel anxiety, you will know people in the building.
Jenny: I love that. Thank you, Melissa. Jo, what’s your tip?
Jo: All of us, when we go to something new, have a very similar feeling to the ones that the applicants will have on day one of walking through the door of their university or their student accommodation. The secret is, is when you get older, you just get better at hiding it and fronting it out.
All things are temporary, and whatever you feel about the situation today, you will feel differently about it in a few weeks, a few months, a few years. When you’re feeling overwhelmed, it’s okay, that’s fine. Just breathe, ask for support, and no matter where you live, or what university you go to, you’re not alone. There are unions, societies, support, teams of people who just come to work to help support you. All you have to do is reach out to start the ball rolling. Please, do reach out if you need anything at all.
Jenny: Another great tip. Thanks, Jo. Nick, what about you?
Nick: I’m going to give you three, and you can pick and choose. One is follow your heart as well as your head. Sometimes, young people feel it’s really important that they do what their teachers or their parents have told them to do but follow your heart as well. Very often, your university course sets you on the track for the rest of your life. If it’s not something you’re fully committed to, maybe think again.
Secondly, don’t be scared of making mistakes. Sometimes, particularly when you’re young, you don’t realise actually life is about second chances. We all make mistakes and change our mind. You can change course after you’ve enrolled. If your course doesn’t work out, you can enrol somewhere else. Don’t be scared of making a mistake.
The third thing which builds on something Jo was saying is university is not only about the academic life. For many of us, it’s at least as much about the non-academic stuff as the academic stuff. If you want to be a journalist, write for the student newspaper. If you want a job in politics, join the debating society. If you want to be really fit, make sure you join one of the sports teams. One of the things we know is your academic work is better, actually, when you have a balance.