Written by Guest Writer

This blog post has been written for us by an industry expert.

“In later life we look at things in a more practical way in full conformity with the rest of society, but adolescence is the only period which we learn anything.” [Proust]

Guest Blog by Pete Quinn, Independent Consultant adept in managing equality, diversity & inclusion, primarily across the education sector.

Adolescence may be arriving later than before. Transitioning to adulthood, and beginning to understand their place in the world, seemingly overlaps with many students’ transition to and through university. Whether adolescent or not there is no greater time in human history to be alive! Even so, depression and anxiety is (globally) the predominant disability. Students with a mental illness now make up the largest proportion of the 13% of disabled students in the UK.

Improved understanding of mental illness has led to an awareness of ‘protective factors’, the ‘conditions’ or ‘attributes’[1] that help support individuals through stressful events, and mitigate risk in families or communities. What ‘protective factors’ or ‘literacies’ might help overcome barriers that students face to live and learn well?

My work with universities suggests a frequent disconnect between what students understand, in terms of expectations, and what ‘literacies’ universities expect. Rarely do prospectuses suggest the need for:

Structural literacy’; the intellectual framework student’s build to learn effectively that allows them to fit small pieces of knowledge into a larger whole. If not well developed, this impacts on their ability to learn and live independently.

Digital literacy’; despite digitised lives students can lack digital literacy i.e. “…the capabilities which fit someone for living, learning and working in a digital society”. Being used to slick digital interactions on Amazon and other platforms, they may find (often) clunky VLE interactions lead to cumulative negative impacts on academic achievement, well-being, and self esteem.

Emotional literacy’; a growing evidence base shows better emotional literacy can be associated with academic success. ‘…emotional literacy is both an individual development and a collective activity and is both about self-development and the building of community’[2]. Universities should be aware of the lack of emotional literacy in the context of a pre-University education (and social media environment) which, is a ‘continuous feedback loop.’ The sudden lack of continuous academic feedback thus has a significant impact.

Financial literacy; should students ‘just know’ how to budget? Tuition fees and other study related debt mean it’s critical that student financial literacy is improved. Money issues, real or perceived, are a barrier to learning and to the acquisition of valuable social and cultural capital.

So what now?

  • Universities must be clear on what is expected, providing unambiguous examples on the academic skills or ‘structural literacy’ their students need. Honesty about the challenge that learning and living at University requires is now essential.
  • Do inductions include ‘digital’ literacy? Are they delivered within the course teaching, and is it given sufficient emphasis? Current inclusive teaching and learning initiatives should enable this to happen.
  • Embedding well-being into the curriculum is critical for academic success[3]. Educating students about ‘well-being’ as part of their core / compulsory studies should garner their attention and positively impact on academic achievement. As well as course content, well-being considerations should account for factors such as over-assessment, or being unclear or ambiguous about expectations.
  • Enabling financial literacy is critical for all students. Should graduates learn from payday lenders about interest rates or can universities give students the means to become independent and autonomous in their financial awareness?

The disconnect students currently experience between their knowledge of structural, digital, emotional, and financial literacies,  and what they are expected to know in each of these areas must be addressed to enable their being literate in learning and living well.


[1] i.e. skills, strengths, responses or coping strategies

[2] Matthews, B. (2006) Engaging Education. Developing Emotional Literacy, Equity and Co-education. Buckingham: McGraw-Hill/Open University Press. pp178

[3] https://www.heacademy.ac.uk/knowledge-hub/embedding-mental-wellbeing-curriculum-maximising-success-higher-education

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