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How can we help university applicants to live independently?

8 August 2023

This year’s Applicant Index was the first to survey university applicants on their confidence in the skills required for independent living, such as cooking a meal, registering with a GP and managing conflict with housemates.

Lottie Randomly, Leapskills Consultant at Unite Students, shares additional research we’ve undertaken with school teachers to understand the needs of the current cohort, and how the findings from both this and the Index highlight the need to prepare young people for independent living at university.

At Unite Students, we’ve just published the 2023 Applicant Index report. The Index – the only survey of its kind in the UK – annually tracks university applicants’ attitudes across nine different themes, providing us with an indicator of what to expect when students arrive in the autumn.

Over the past year I’ve been redeveloping Unite Students’ Leapskills programme – one of our initiatives to support 16 to 19-year-olds with the transition to independent living. Leapskills has to be highly responsive to the needs of current students, so I’ve been eagerly awaiting the results of this year’s Index to understand how this cohort are approaching the transition. In particular, I’ve been interested in the results of the new ‘Independence’ section added to the survey which asks students about their confidence around becoming independent and gauges their sense of self-efficacy when it comes to some of the essential skills that they will need when they leave home.


What is Leapskills?

Leapskills was first developed in 2017, in response to our research with students, their parents and our support teams. Our Reality Check report, released in the same year, revealed that whilst 81% of those surveyed felt confident about undertaking the essential skills of independent living like cooking a meal, doing the laundry or household cleaning, 61% felt anxious about moving away from home. This initial inquiry also revealed to us that students often hadn’t considered some of the more mundane issues and challenges they might face when living independently. Our support teams told us that this led to the students they encountered having feelings of disappointment or feeling overwhelmed when the reality of student life really hit home.

The Leapskills programme was created with these tensions in mind: building on the excitement and confidence students feel about this next big step in life, whilst presenting them with examples of the sorts of issues and dilemmas they might face and normalising the need to ask for support when they need it.

Powered by The Academy, Unite Students’ commitment to lifelong learning, Leapskills is delivered through an interactive workshop that is designed to generate discussion and self-reflection. To date, we have delivered sessions to over 3,000 young people since 2017 and our Leapskills digital game has been played more than 30,000 times.

Of course, times have changed since Leapskills’ inception. Against the backdrop of a global pandemic and a cost of living crisis in the UK, the challenges that students face have undoubtedly shifted. So how might students be feeling about living independently since these events?


What our teacher research revealed

To get to grips with how a ‘post-pandemic’ landscape had impacted their students, we launched a nationwide survey in February 2023 for educators working with 16 to 19-year-olds, following this up with focus groups for a deeper dive into their experiences.

From this, we learned that teachers were really concerned about how their students were going to manage the transition to university. They told us that their students had anxieties about the future and were concerned by the cost of living crisis – two factors that were leading them to feel nervous about the prospect of university.

They also told us how, due to the experience of lockdowns in 2020-21 and the online learning that their older siblings had to undertake at university, this current cohort have lost key role models who went to university and had a positive time. Overall, teachers felt that this current cohort were less prepared for the challenges of moving away from home.


A cohort that feels confident about living independently

When we look at the Applicant Index, we get a different story; across the theme of Independence there is a positive picture of students’ confidence about this transition. Scores from this area were relatively high, with over two-thirds of students agreeing that they have confidence across the following four areas: living independently; knowing where to access external support; knowing how to address issues pertaining to living on their own; and making decisions for themselves. Equally, applicants are generally confident about household chores, with 84% feeling confident about cooking and 88% feeling confident about cleaning.

Of course, it’s hugely positive that students feel confident about their move away from home. That said, as a youth mental health professional for more than 15 years, I am also aware that ‘confidence’ can very easily be eroded in circumstances where young people venture out of their comfort zones and away from their trusted sources of support. As these are both factors that moving to university often presents them with, we also need to prepare them for the inevitability that there will be times when their confidence dips and that in those moments it is absolutely okay to ask for support.


Where university applicants may require support

However, there were some definite areas students might require further support or signposting. Only 27% feel ‘very confident’ about registering with a GP, with 36% rating themselves as ‘somewhat confident’. When asked about managing a conflict with housemates, 64% said they felt confident – although only 1 in 5 of those surveyed felt ‘very confident’. When it comes to supporting a friend in distress, just over a third were ‘very confident’ about this, with a further third feeling somewhat confident.

Given that 81% of those surveyed also told us that they want to feel that they belong while at university, skills such as being able to manage conflicts or support a friend who is struggling can be vital tools in supporting belonging. Our facilitators will continue to raise awareness about how important these skills are in our sessions, alongside being responsive to where the gaps in knowledge might be.

The insights from the Index are already helping to shape the future of Leapskills and, as we get closer to our delivery pilot in Bristol this September and October, I’m excited by how we can ensure these vital statistics inform the conversations that we generate with the future cohort in those sessions.

Find out more about how universities are preparing for this year’s new students in our latest podcast, ‘What do we know about the class of 2023?’:

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