Written by Rosie Neill

Head of marketing

Jim Dickinson, Associate Editor at Wonkhe and Former Director at the National Union of Students, joined us for our first webinar of the term and there was no shortage of HE sector news to discuss! Jim highlighted 5 key themes for universities to focus on in the coming months. 

Student freedom and behaviour 

Jim noted how most of the government’s assumptions, and subsequent modelling around controlling the spread of the virus, presume that citizens are under a form of either horizontal or vertical control. For example: 

  • At school (behaviour is monitored by authorities)
  • At work (behaviour is monitored by employer)
  • In a leisure/hospitality/retail venue (behaviour is guided by restrictions) 
  • Retired or ill (lower risk of breaking restrictions) 

Yet, when it comes to students living away from home, there’s an almost completely absent level of control and monitoring. This freedom now poses a significant problem because students will fall into (and bounce between) two groups: 

  1. Those who follow the rules, resulting in loneliness and risking their mental health and wellbeing
  2. Those who won’t follow the rules, likely spreading and amplifying the virus 
jim dickinson wonkhe

Jim queried whether there is perhaps a way to improve the space between the two groups by giving students more guidance on how to spend their time safely. 

He mentioned an encouraging example from the University of St. Andrews where Sally Mapstone, Principal and Vice-Chancellor, recently announced a new initiative in conjunction with the Students Association to provide guidance for students on safe things to do face-to-face. Will this be replicated at other institutions?

jim dickinson universities

Scope for innovation

The headlines have been dominated recently by the ‘Christmas debate’, which boils down to whether students will be able to return to their families for the festive period. 

However, what the Christmas debate fails to consider is that there’s not one, but three types of students: 

  • The traditional ‘Harry Potter boarder’ student – they appear at the start of term and go home at the end of term
  • Commuter students – living at home and travel back and forth to university
  • Hybrid students – those who stay at university in the week but often go home at weekends

The concern over Christmas doesn’t apply to commuter and hybrid students, who are potentially already spreading the virus between home and university.

The debate has led Jim to wonder if there could be room for innovative models of higher education. He queries whether our binary models of either commuting or living in a town have become outdated since the pandemic and if so, could there be potential for hybrid models of distance and face-to-face teaching and learning?

Could learning camps or block teaching, for example, give students the ability to create networks and make friends, without needing to rent a property in a university town or city for a year?

Remote communication and support 

Jim reflected on the Kubler-Ross Change Curve to think about the rollercoaster of emotions that we can all feel when it comes to the ‘new normal’. 

While those involved in the ‘return to campus’ planning process are likely quite far along in the ‘looking forward’ stage, what’s become clear over the past couple of weeks is that many students and staff are much further behind on the rollercoaster. 

Understanding the students of today and how they differ from pre-Covid students will help universities deliver remote communication and support strategies that students want and need. It’ll also be the key to successful connection, communication and engagement. And the way to do this? Put even greater emphasis on the student voice, but only if universities are truly listening.

Decisions driven by burnout

University staff are often able to have some downtime in the summer break between academic years. But not this year, which has led to what Jim described as the sector being ‘in the throes of deep burnout’. 

The main concern here is that burnout can lead to operating on autopilot, which can result in bad decisions and mistakes. It can also mean the failure to anticipate upcoming challenges. For example, in what Jim argued could be the next big issue for universities: non-continuation. 

Refunds and non-continuation

Jim speculated that a primary reason students may drop out this term could be a lack of horizontal support:

  • Vertical support – given by universities, personal tutors, etc.
  • Horizontal support – the feeling of belonging, making friends and connecting with peers

And when it comes to non-continuation, Jim spoke of the need to provide a ‘cushioning’ for students who do drop out. What will happen, he wondered, with tuition and accommodation fees? This on top of many parents and students already calling for at least partial refunds of tuition fees. 

It remains to be seen whether the Competition and Markets Authority will turn its attention to the HE sector and recommend refunds like it has for nurseries and holidays. But according to Jim, while teaching and learning is largely being delivered, it’s fairly clear that students aren’t getting what they expected when they came to campus in terms of facilities and services. 

There’s a lot here to consider, and with many already feeling burnt out, perhaps addressing students’ lack of horizontal support could be a good place for universities to start. 

Watch the recording

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