What we’ve learned about next year’s students

30 Jun 2021
By Jenny Shaw, Student Experience Director at Unite Students
Today, we've shared the findings of our 2021 applicant survey, shedding light on the incoming student cohort's wellbeing, preparedness for university, and much more.

Earlier in June, we also hosted a round table on the needs of new students with a panel of sector experts. Jenny Shaw summarises what we've learned from both the survey and round table, and what we can expect to see from those students coming to university in the autumn.

The incoming student cohort of 2021 has experienced severe disruption to their studies from Covid-19 over two academic years, and been denied the social opportunities that are vital their formative years. The transition to university can be challenging at the best of times. Shaped by their experiences over the past 18 months, and with the prospect of further disruption from Covid-19, this cohort will almost certainly have different needs – but what are they, and how can we meet them?

We posed this question at an expert Round Table, for which we were joined by experts spanning universities, sector bodies, students unions, healthcare, and sixth form colleges. We also surveyed this year’s applicants, taking the opportunity to compare their responses with similar cohorts from 2019 and 2017. Here’s what we found.

 

Less ready

Those starting university this autumn feel less ready to go to university and less well informed than the 2017 cohort. Readiness has fallen from 45% to 36%, which is made more surprising by the fact that the 2017 survey took place in April rather than June. Our experts told us that school and college leavers are feeling a lot of uncertainty in general, and that imposter syndrome is widespread, linked to an erroneous belief that their assessments were less rigorous than external exams.

 

Social first

The social side of university is, unsurprisingly, a strong driver for a cohort who has spent 15 months under some level of social restriction. When asked what they were most looking forward to about going to university, meeting new people and making friends attracted the most votes. Interestingly, “reinventing myself/becoming my true self” was the third most chosen. The experts told us how isolated this cohort has been, how much they missed school or college during periods of lockdown. Most have not had the opportunity to spread their wings, to travel with friends or go to festivals like older friends and siblings did, so there is a strong sense of missed opportunity.

‘Screen fatigue’ is palpable within this cohort. We re-ran a set of questions about preferred modes of learning from just two years ago, and there was a strong swing towards a preference face to face learning at university and away from online. Nonetheless, the experts pointed out that this cohort has had to adapt rapidly to online learning which will stand them in good stead for their time at university.

 

Belonging

This is also a cohort that wants to belong. 92% agreed that they would like a sense of belonging at university. We heard that this generation wants to feel ‘seen’. Most are coming from an environment where everyone knows their name and their story, so anything that would personalise their welcome will help to make them feel part of a community. However with this comes a level of concern – 59% are anxious that they won’t, in fact, fit in. Uncertainly breed anxiety, and we heard how important it will be to help new students visualise their environment before they arrive, and find their way around comfortably and without embarrassment when they are there.

Perhaps the biggest need is support to build communities.

Wellbeing and mental health

It will surprise no-one that wellbeing has dropped among this cohort compared to previous years. We ran the ONS standard wellbeing questions and found modest but consistent drops across all four. This parallels HEPI/HEA’s recent findings for students in their recent Academic Experience Survey.

We were able to get some further details here. As predicted by our experts, the rate of mental health condition is up in this cohort (from 13% to 15% since 2017), and anxiety, eating disorders and PTSD were up. In fact in a question about experiences over the last year, 24% of all applicants said they had experienced binge eating, restricting their food or other eating disorder symptoms compared to 18% four years ago. However this may be a case of changed coping strategies – both excessive drinking and illegal drug use were down significantly this year.

When asked about support they would like to see in their accommodation, we see a change in preference away from peer-to-peer support and towards support from staff members, counselling and welfare campaigns. The experts told us that students still value peer support, but many of them have had excessive burdens placed upon them by having to support friends and flatmates with serious mental health conditions. We also heard this first hand in a student focus group. There is a greater desire for professional support which could put a strain on already well-used services.

 

Building community

However perhaps the biggest need – and the greatest opportunity for accommodation teams – is support to build communities. Our expert panel was united in the belief that severely restricted social opportunities have resulted in a cohort that will need more support in ‘finding their tribe’, taking those first steps towards making friends and developing a community. This came through strongly in the survey. The desire to be able to contact their flatmates pre-arrival has gone up from 55% in 2017 to 73% this year. We also found that there were strong preferences about who they would like to share a flat with, and only 17% said they would be happy to live with any other students.

 

Resilience and diversity

But it’s also important not to fall into a deficit mindset when thinking about the class of 21. They have had to deal with some incredibly difficult circumstances it’s true, but they are also resilient, adaptable and know their own mind. We were reminded that this cohort walked out of their GCSE courses to protest about climate change, so they will not take things lying down. They are also diverse, and have had very different experiences of lockdown. Some have had better access to resources than others. And while some will feel anxious about socialising, others may unleash 18 months of pent-up desire to party. This is sure to be a challenge for accommodation teams.

Although we didn’t survey them, it’s likely that many of these findings will also be true for second year students. A supported transition to university – and ‘re-freshers’ for second years – are vitally important this year.

We look forward to sharing our own plans to respond to these findings over the coming months, and to hearing about others’ good practice. 

 

You can find the full slide deck of findings here, while our latest Accommodation Matters podcast episode explores this new cohort further - listen now:

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Jenny Shaw is Student Experience Director for Unite Students. She has previously worked for three UK universities and as a consultant to national HE sector organisations prior to her time at Unite Students.