Mental Health, Students, Universities

Supporting student mental health at Nottingham Trent University

Paul Dodsley and Leah Wareham together form the hub of the student support service at Nottingham Trent University, where 30,000 students are studying at any one time.  Paul describes the service as “prevention-led” – its aim is to take hold of opportunities to support students before they slip into difficulties, rather than afterwards.  It has been running for about fifteen years and addresses a range of issues – sexual health, drug and alcohol, nutrition – but mental health awareness takes up approximately 70% of Paul’s time and all of Leah’s.

How can two people make a difference to such a large body of students?  Paul and Leah have been extremely innovative in their approach and established an impressive variety of ways to enable them to punch far above their weight. Firstly, the service partners with specialist organisations to make its resources go further – the NHS, for example, and Student Minds. Some of these partner organisations themselves deliver services on the campus.  Secondly, training is a big part of what Paul and Leah do.  They train academics to recognise signs of distress in students and how to help; they train the student Mental Health Champions – other students who help in a myriad of ways – and offer Student Minds – Look Out For your Mates workshops to all students, which awards students with a nationally recognised certificate and, it is hoped, gives them essential life skills.  

Leah’s specific role is to focus on communication and innovative ways of delivering the message about the types of support available. She says she tries to be as creative as possible.  At the start of the first lockdown she posted “top tips” for preserving a healthy mental outlook on the Student Support Instagram. From these have progressed Instagram “takeovers” which talk about mental health and how the service can help; and also adaptation of formerly in-person activities to allow them to take place online, such as Time to Talk – a big virtual event which included input from many of the partner services involved. She has also organised virtual events of all kinds.  Some are designed to work as occupational therapy – tie-dye tutorials on Instagram, for example, and cookery videos; life-drawing classes and yoga.

Leah (along with Zoe Mallett from the NTSU) is responsible for recruiting and training the Champions.  There were only two when she joined the university staff less than three years ago, having just graduated in Photography; now around 400 have signed up.  She says that the peer support they provide is invaluable: “It is really effective for students to get support from other students.” Some of the ways in which they deliver are “quite funky”.  Many of them are very engaged and themselves think of all sorts of ways of contributing – for example, by creating podcasts.  Some are gaining work experience.  Together with Paul and Leah, their aim is to improve attitude to self-care:  Paul mentioned each person having “a kitbag of support”.  All the work they do is completely voluntary – though Paul says their commitment is so great that he would like to be able to find a way to pay them.

Asked what kinds of advice and support students need, and whether he feels they are more dependent than students used to be in the past, Paul is supportive of the present student generation.  He says the level of support that is now available is brilliant when compared with, say, twenty years ago, when he was a student at NTU.  University attendance has always brought its own challenges, even before the various lockdowns. To these have now been added more uncertainty regarding jobs for graduates and what will happen after they graduate.  He believes that one of the key contributions of the service is to enable students to leave the university better equipped to deal with whatever life throws at them next. 

The impact of the pandemic and consequent lockdowns has been significant.  “Each lockdown has put an increased burden on mental health,” Paul says.  “It’s difficult to know whether it’s worse for the first years, who have never known ‘normal’ university life, or for the second and third years, who have experienced what it was like and therefore know what they are missing, for some or all the remaining time they have left here.” Students are not used to isolation. In non-lockdown circumstances, they meet regularly and this gives them a sense of belonging, of being part of a community.  Many students have welcomed the online support now on offer.  Paul says he recently read a comment in a study issues by the Mental Health Foundation about the present situation which struck him as particularly apposite: “We’re all in the same storm, but we’re not in the same boat.”  The message he and Leah want to get across is, “If you’re struggling, that’s OK and perfectly understandable, but don’t suffer in silence.”

Asked what has made her most proud, Leah says it is the work that the champions have done.  “They get the student voice across, especially now they have started becoming more involved in online activity through social media and our events that run peer-to-peer sessions online. The work they do is amazing and they keep up with it – it doesn’t dwindle over time.”

Asked how he sees the future, Paul says he thinks the service will keep on building up its identity and raising awareness of “what we do”.   He would like to be able to focus more on promoting positive health and mental self-care.  “And of course, we need more staff.” That is perhaps undeniable; but it’s also undeniably true that what Paul and Leah have achieved is also “amazing”.

[written by Linda Bennett, Gold Leaf]

Mental Health, Students

Mental health of international undergraduates in a time of global crisis

As part of our mini-series about undergraduate mental health, we tried to find out more about the specific issues international students face at this time of global crisis, and which strategies universities and students themselves are deploying to address them.

First, to provide some clarity: the term “mental health” is frequently used ambiguously, but for the purpose of this and all following blog posts, we shall work with the definition provided by the World Health Organisation [WHO], which states that “Mental health is a state of well-being in which an individual realizes his or her own abilities, can cope with the normal stresses of life, can work productively and is able to make a contribution to his or her community.” (More details on this can be found here.) The purpose of our articles is to examine imbalances of this state of well-being; we do not consider mental disorders (which require professional support by a GP, psychotherapist or psychiatrist) to be part of this remit.

We spoke to psychologist P. Weigelt-Lindemann, who provides psychological counselling to students at a medium-sized University of Applied Sciences in Germany.

“I started working at this University last year, shortly after the first lockdown had begun in Germany. Since taking up the post, I have therefore always worked from home, and have conducted all counselling remotely so far. My university is a very young (less than 15 years old) teaching university, teaches most degrees in English and has a focus on Natural Sciences, Technology and Agricultural Sciences. As a result, we have a very international student body and more than 50% of students are not German; they mainly come from India, Bangladesh, Pakistan, China and African countries. It has been interesting to see that at first the pandemic barely featured in my counselling; it is only since the second [much stricter] lockdown that was imposed in December that Covid has created real concern for our students. The main anxieties they raise include homesickness, no prospect of being able to travel back into their home countries any time soon and worry about their families, particularly when their families live in countries where infection numbers have gone out of control.”

Social isolation has been a worry throughout the pandemic, but over the winter it has become a bigger issue. Not only international, but also domestic students are suffering from an increased lack of motivation and find it more difficult to absorb information purely through screens and with very limited possibilities for informal exchange with other students. Initially, students adapted well to this new way of learning because they assumed it would only be temporary, but now they are struggling with a state of fatigue – one year on, there is no real end in sight.

P. Weigelt-Lindemann says: “Our ‘Welcome Centre’ that looks after first year students has done an incredibly good job in providing induction to new students remotely, so interestingly these students are coping relatively well with the remote learning. It is those students who were able to build friendships and relationships before the pandemic broke out, and who are used to learning in lecture halls and seminar rooms, who are struggling much more.
“Having said that, international first year students face the added difficulty of cultural assimilation. With everything closed, – not only the university buildings, but also shops, restaurants, cultural venues etc. – these students have only seen their student halls since having arrived in this country, and it is incredibly difficult for them to get to know the country they have moved to and to settle into this new culture. At the same time, there is no prospect of going back home in the near future, so they find themselves in a state of limbo between two cultures, which makes it very hard for them.”

P. Weigelt-Lindemann says the University has experienced a sharp increase in demand for counselling. It has also been noticeable that the pressures on students have increased. Whilst fees are less of an issue in Germany than they are elsewhere (there are no tuition fees at German universities for anyone taking a first degree, though international students have to provide solid proof of financial resources to obtain a student visa), most part-time job opportunities for students – who typically work in bars, restaurants or in the events industry to cover their costs of living – have vanished, and they are more dependent on their families or government support than before. This leads to an increased pressure to be successful in a more challenging learning environment.

The concept of “Emerging Adulthood” as a new phase of development for the period from the late teens through the twenties was first introduced by Jeffrey Jensen Arnett in 2004 and describes the phenomenon of a distinct phase in people’s lives which they spend in self-focused exploration and trying out different possibilities in their careers and relationships, while society sees them as adults who are expected to have entered adulthood and taken decisions accordingly.

P. Weigelt-Lindemann witnesses this discrepancy when engaging in counselling sessions with students. The difficulties that must be negotiated by “emerging adults” are exacerbated by the current situation. “The students are not ready to be adults yet, they need a lot more support in finding their way than previous generations did, but the current situation doesn’t allow them to rely on this support network. This is very difficult for many of them, who are not used to organising their lives for themselves, and that has an effect on their mental health. The university support network has to understand this and the services need to take into account that these students need a lot more (often basic) support than the university is used to providing.”

However, as P. Weigelt-Lindemann points out, the universities can offer a lot to support these students, who should not feel ashamed of asking for help. “Many students think they are the only ones who struggle, but it helps them to find out that their worries and struggles are shared by many and that there is help at hand.”

The university’s counselling service is a good starting point for help, and in many places the Student Unions also provide Mental Health support of excellent quality.

[written by Annika Bennett, Gold Leaf]

Mental Health, Students

The mental well-being of our students

Whilst at Gold Leaf we believe it is alarmist – and not at all helpful – to call the present generation of students “lost” because of the impact of the pandemic and various lockdowns on their education – in our experience most young people are astonishingly brave and resilient – it has to be acknowledged that everyone who has enjoyed working for a degree in happier times must sympathise with their plight.  Even though many universities around the world have done sterling work in supporting students as much as possible with online learning and blended learning and librarians have both rapidly increased their electronic holdings and made sure that academics and students are well-versed in using them, it cannot be denied that students are missing out on many of the things that make university special: for example, fieldwork expeditions and collaborative lab-work; trips to the theatre, concerts and art galleries and the other rich cultural experiences usually available to undergraduates; even simply hanging out with their peers. On top of this, students may be worried that degrees awarded under today’s restricted studying conditions may be “worth less” than “normal” and that even if the qualifications are recognised, there will be few jobs waiting for those who have qualified.

It is therefore not surprising that concern for students’ mental well-being has increased substantially throughout the past year. A significant amount of research has now been undertaken on this issue. One study, led by the University of Glasgow and published in the British Journal of Psychiatry, found that thoughts of suicide among undergraduates encouraged by 8 – 10% in just three months.  A survey conducted by the Higher Education Policy Institute found that students now report considerably lower levels of personal well-being than the population as a whole. Dartmouth College, in the USA, detected spikes in student depression and anxiety as early as March 2020, when students were first encouraged to leave the campus and conduct most of their learning online. In January, French students organised a series of nationwide protests to draw attention to rising mental health problems caused by the pandemic.  Special mental health counsellors appointed at the University of Lyon say they have been overwhelmed by the demands placed on their services.  Two undergraduates at this university have already taken their own lives this year. An article in The Lancet points out that not much is known about the effects of large-scale pandemics on the health of children and adolescents[1]. As well as having a profound impact on their education, social distancing may exacerbate the risk of other threats to young people, such as physical, mental or sexual abuse. If their parents lose their jobs, this also undermines their sense of security.

Last year UNESCO started its Minding our Minds campaign. Eric Falt, Director and UNESCO Representative to Bhutan, India, the Maldives and Sri Lanka, wrote: “It will take all of our collective effort and focus to ensure that students are getting the care they need to succeed.” To highlight the importance of the impact of COVID-19 and the lockdown on the mental health of marginalized communities, UNESCO New Delhi has created five awareness posters, which are available in four languages English, Hindi, Sinhala and Tamil.

Clearly undergraduate mental health is vitally important to everyone: today’s undergraduates will be the scientists, politicians, artists and writers of the future.  Over the next few weeks, we are therefore planning to dig a little deeper into how some universities are supporting the mental health of their undergraduate communities.  If, having read this post, you would like to contribute or comment, we shall be delighted to hear from you.

[written by Linda Bennett, Gold Leaf]


[1] Mental health effects of school closures during COVID-19 – The Lancet Child & Adolescent Health

General, Students, Trends in Publishing

Is the British education system racially prejudiced?

This is a delicate topic, but as it’s so much in the news at the moment, we thought we ought not to ignore it.

There is, of course, a mountain of statistics to support the assertion that our education system is stacked against people from BAME communities, but also other evidence to illustrate that black and Asian students often go on to be spectacular achievers if they succeed in being admitted to tertiary education. Usually, but not always, these students encounter less prejudice at university – probably because many universities exercise a different kind of prejudice: they are meritocracies. This may be accompanied by the strong feeling in some of the older generation of academics that all that has to be overcome is the same kind of prejudice as that of working-class undergraduates that they themselves triumphed against in the 1970s and 1980s. To muddy the waters even further, white working-class boys emerged some time ago as the group least likely to succeed academically.

It is an unquestionable fact that to get to university you have to succeed at school. If there is racial prejudice, therefore, it seems likely that this is where the problem may lie. Is racial prejudice institutionalised, perhaps covertly, in our schools?

We interviewed a senior teacher who has worked for many years in one of the UK’s largest and most successful comprehensive schools. For obvious reasons, he wishes to remain anonymous, but he spoke to us with passion about this issue.

The school in question was created by the amalgamation of two grammar schools in the 1970s, after which the combined institution became comprehensive. Although the two schools had always educated pupils of different nationalities and creeds, they had been mainly white and predominantly European, as well as academically able in the conventional sense. The school immediately at that point began to enrol pupils from BAME (though this collective term had not been coined then) backgrounds as well, until eventually the school’s population represented over thirty-five different home languages.

There were many difficulties at first which, although the school recognised them, were difficult to resolve. Some teachers were undoubtedly racially prejudiced or old-fashioned meritocrats who were suspicious of or impatient with people from different cultures. As time went on and these older teachers retired, the school was able to develop robust recruitment techniques which ensured that all the staff – including a growing army of non-teaching and support staff, from caretakers to teaching assistants to specialists in the education of children with identified needs to attendance and home liaison officers – were much more representative of the school’s population make-up, shared the same values and agreed on how they would work with students from all backgrounds to provide each child with the support and personal resources to progress well educationally. The school considered it vital to have transparency and clarity through policies carefully constructed by consultation that embraced governors, staff, parents, children and other relevant stakeholders.  

Cultural stereotyping was a more subtle problem. Well-meaning teachers and external influencers might, for example, think it a good idea to set up a steel band for black students and in fact the school experimented with this, but discovered that such a move immediately set participating pupils apart and formed them into a kind of elite. To be properly egalitarian and truly non-racist, the school needed, perhaps by deliberately accommodating particular cultural needs, to encourage BAME students to feel able, by choice, to participate in any school activity. Celebration of individual achievement became central to the approach.

Addressing behavioural issues was another important factor and the students themselves had to understand that, when they were being asked to modify their behaviour, this wasn’t a reflection on their culture, but simply a request to act with courtesy and consideration for others. “At any one time, black students never formed more than five per cent of the school’s total numbers – there were many more Asians – but the black students seemed to be everywhere. The lads in particular were strapping and noisily extrovert. If someone slipped and fell in the corridor, they would find it hilarious and laugh and shout and point. They had to learn to be more aware of the effect they were having on others. It was vital to develop in all pupils the capacity for empathy, rather than simply applying behavioural sanctions.”

Some of these same black pupils proved to be very academically capable indeed once they understood they were valued for themselves and settled down to work. However, over time the school’s own attitude towards what constituted success changed dramatically. Its roots were in the traditional grammar school system of hothousing high academic achievers and rewarding academic success, but by the 1990s its guiding principle was that every student was of equal importance and that each could achieve things which all could celebrate. Mutual kindness and mutual appreciation of talents of all kinds became its mantra. The emphasis was firmly on individual and personal needs and how those should best be met, whether they be educational, medical, cultural, religious, gender-related, social or even financial. It was clear that the school’s internal communication of pupil-specific information must be first-rate, confidential and effectively applied.

Both BAME and ‘Caucasian’ students who attended this school are now doctors, teachers, scientists, academics, members of the police or armed forces and politicians. Some are actors, artists and singers. Others are plumbers, bricklayers, secretaries and hairdressers. Across all walks of life, many have kept in touch with each other. Some return to the school to encourage those studying there today, when the students come from even more diverse backgrounds than previously. The school is now one of the most successful comprehensive schools in the country.  It is, however, the painful truth that not all UK schools have taken a similar approach. Schools with less mixed populations perhaps have not developed the expertise or felt the need to pay so much attention to the preparation of their pupils for the multi-cultural world they will enter as employees; such institutions may not have the resources, both human and material, to reflect the rich mixture of British society. Yet they have a duty to prepare their pupils not just with academic skills, but with the social capability that comes from knowledge and understanding of others and with values that will prevent any inclination to stereotype those who may seem different. As I was writing this, the announcement was made that this year’s British Bookseller Awards were dominated by black female authors. Candace Carty-Williams won overall book of the year with her debut novel Queenie; Oyinkan Braithwaite won crime and thriller book of the year with My Sister the Serial Killer; and Bernardine Evaristo, joint Booker winner for Girl, Woman, Other was named Author of the Year.

[Written by Linda Bennett, Gold Leaf]

General, Students

The Covid-19 crisis: views of a student

We asked Daphne van Engeland, who studies in her second year towards a BA in Digital Marketing at Coventry University about her experiences.

Please tell us a little bit about the courses and lectures you attend.

Each of my courses has two one-hour lectures and one two-hour seminar per week. The lectures can be in groups of over 100 students as some marketing courses overlap and the seminars are more interactive in smaller groups, typically around 15 students. During lectures we’d sit in a big hall and listen to the lecturer, while seminars have a more practical focus and we often have to do assignments which we present afterwards.

Which impact did Covid-19 have on your university and you?

From the end of March, Coventry University suspended all in-person teaching and assessments and then continued closing down the campus further as the situation worsened. When the announcement was made, I rebooked my flight to the Netherlands (where I am original from) that was scheduled for April to one that very same week so I could be safe at home with my family. I have been continuing to study from here.

Tell us about your experience of learning remotely.

The semester at Coventry University was already coming to an end, so I ended up not having any live remote lectures. One teacher did upload videos of the topics that he covered, which was about the coursework. We used Microsoft Teams to have feedback sessions for our coursework, which was new but very useful. I did not have any exams this semester, but from other years of my course I knew they had to complete exams in essay-style and students would have a few hours on a set day to complete them. Cheating does not really work in this case because the exams are all about showing understanding and examples.

Which challenges have affected you most? 

I found it very challenging to be home all the time and get myself to do the work as the situation is stressful for me. Having set days and hours to work on coursework helped me a lot. With group work it is a big challenge that we can’t go and sit down somewhere to work together. Having meetings on Microsoft Teams helps, but I noticed there were more miscommunications than we experienced in previous courseworks. Communication from lecturers differs by person, but they are mostly responsive to emails and do their best to make things work. I feel like it’s important to remember this is new for them too.

Has the Library been able to support you?

The online library at Coventry University has always been quite extensive, and that helps a lot now. Luckily, we get our books at the university included in the tuition fees, so I did not need to borrow any. As I am not in the city at the moment, I unfortunately don’t know if they can still provide physical books. I think they will follow the government rules and open up as soon as they are allowed to and can do so safely.

Which learning resources (books, textbooks, databases, software etc.) are you using for remote teaching? Have these changed?

My online resources often include academic articles and business reports. Those were mostly online anyway, so that has not changed a lot. The textbooks that I did need were mine already. My bank also offered a free subscription to a website of resources, which helped me find some more things I needed. What I would like is if some books came with a code to download the ebook version. I could not take all my books with me, and having them online or on my eReader would have helped me a lot.

Is there anything else you would like to say?

I think it will take a while before the large lectures will be started up again and I think that in future the university will be more prepared for situations like these. I think classes will be smaller as long as there is no vaccine and that they will keep on providing online content for those at risk of severe illness. Coventry University is moving to a new learning space as a replacement of Moodle, which will hopefully make remote learning easier. I hope that remote learning will be available even when the university opens again. I personally like being able to watch lectures at home, especially when I’m ill.

Please tell us a bit about yourself

I am from the Netherlands where I studied a few years of European Studies before moving to the UK. In my downtime I like reading and gaming. My love for gaming led me to start streaming on Twitch, which is a hobby for now but I’m hoping that it can be part of my career in the future. I have just started a marketing internship for the summer and will be going on straight to my third year at university after that.

[Written by Annika Bennett, Gold Leaf]

Academic Publishing, Apprentices, Students

Apprenticeships in Academic Publishing – Part 1: The Scheme

National Apprenticeship Week featured prominently in the media earlier this month, which made us think about the scheme and how it is represented in Academic Publishing. We therefore decided to speak to several people involved and have received so many good responses that we have decided to create two blog posts about it.

This is the first, which introduces the scheme.

In the UK, the Education and Skills Act was passed 12 years ago; it makes education or training compulsory until the age of 18. This means that all young people are expected to continue learning after they have reached school leaving age at 16, and the government has since put various schemes in place to give everyone opportunities to shape this learning according to their interests and needs. This does not necessarily mean that everyone has to continue going to school – the training can, for example, be fulfilled by taking up on-the job training; and later this year the new T-Levels will be introduced, to provide qualifications for 16 to 18 year olds who do not want to go down the route of  (more academic) A-Levels. Whilst T-Levels will offer a mixture of classroom and “on-the-job” learning, apprenticeships offer an additional option to school leavers. These are mainly focused on the workspace (like other workers, apprentices earn a salary and have the right to paid holidays), but allow the apprentices time off for academic learning, in conjunction with a Training Provider.

With the high increase of university tuition fees 8 years ago and the government’s strong support of a newly-created apprenticeship scheme, apprenticeships have become an attractive alternative for some students who have completed their A-Levels. The government has introduced nationally recognised standards and in recent years, apprentices have become more and more part of the workforce, including the Academic Publishing industry.

So, what is the scheme?

Apprentices usually work in a full-time post at a company, receiving on-the-job training and gaining the skills and knowledge necessary for the job. However, unlike an untrained or unqualified member of staff who will simply learn a job by doing, apprentices are supported by the Training Provider – they are enrolled on a course that provides theoretical learning needed for the job (up to 20% of the time); an independent mentor who is in weekly contact with the apprentice to monitor their progress and answer questions; and pastoral care. Apprentices receive a basic salary (in Academic Publishing it usually is somewhere between £14,500 and £19,000 pa) and get the course fees paid via Apprenticeship Levy funds.
These entry-level apprenticeships usually take around 18 months.

The Apprenticeship Levy was introduced by the government in 2017, to support more apprentices. The Levy is a tax paid by every business that has an annual pay bill of more than £3million and the money is held in a fund that the employer can access to train staff who are doing an apprenticeship. Surplus money is used to cross-fund apprenticeship courses at smaller companies. These companies do not pay into the levy, but can still appoint apprentices – the cost is then split between the government (which covers 95% of the cost through the levy) and the employer, which covers 5% of the cost, plus the apprentice’s salary.

When talking about apprentices, many people will think of school leavers who join the workforce for the first time through their apprenticeship. These are usually called “Level 3” apprenticeships, and there are many different courses to choose from. The ones typically offered in Academic Publishing might include Business Administration, Customer Services, Accountancy, Project Management or – a newly accredited standard – Publishing Assistant.  However, employers also have the option to use the levy to offer apprenticeship learning to existing colleagues to further their education in work-related qualifications. These apprenticeships range from mid-level qualifications (such as Data Analysis or Operations Management) to a degree-level apprenticeship such as a Senior Leader Master’s Degree, which is the equivalent of an MBA. Like entry-level apprenticeships, these are studied for whilst the apprentice is working; the apprentice doesn’t pay for any tuition fees and continues to earn a salary, but is given 20% of working time off to study.
The courses are taught in block seminars, or through online learning; and it is a statutory requirement that all apprentices are given “20% off-the-job” learning during the working week. This might be done one day per week, or spread across the week, depending on individual circumstances.

Why do companies engage in the scheme? In an interview with Heidi Mulvey, Head of Community Engagement at Cambridge University Press, she made the reasons clear:

“We started employing apprentices in 2012, before the levy was introduced, initially with roles in shared services such as Customer Services, HR and IT. Now we employ apprentices in departments right across the business and we currently have 28 entry-level apprentices, plus more than 50 colleagues who are using apprenticeships to further their development.

Apprenticeships are helping us to attract fantastic new people into the business, many of whom, for a variety of reasons, did not go to University. Most of our apprentices have A-Levels or equivalent, though in some cases candidates as young as 16 have been successful in their applications, which really demonstrates how much they have to offer: their potential is more important than their formal qualifications, and the apprenticeship provides training around the skills and knowledge needed for their role, whilst they also learn their role. Apprenticeships are playing a big part in helping us attract diverse new talent into publishing, and our apprentices are bringing in fresh and innovative thinking.

Most of our apprentices stay at the Press when they have finished their apprenticeships and have opportunities to continue their development and gain promotions.  One of our earliest apprentices now manages an apprentice herself and two others are doing a degree apprenticeship. This opportunity to earn while you learn has become a very viable and attractive alternative to the classic career path of a university degree and graduate training.”

…please also read our next post, in which three apprentices in Academic Publishing will tell us about their experiences.

Many thanks to Heidi Mulvey, Cambridge University Press, who provided a lot of the insight for this article.

[Written by Annika Bennett, Gold Leaf]

Finances, Students

Jumping on the student gravy train

We’re almost twenty years into this century and each year has brought an increase in the politicisation of the UK’s universities, with the resulting knock-on effect on the student population.  In 2002, Tony Blair said that the government’s target was for 50% of eighteen-year-olds to enter higher education – a figure which it subsequently transpired he probably picked out of the air.  David Cameron was keen on universities being run as businesses, while at the same time deploring the “narrowness” of the subjects they covered. 

The introduction of tuition fees, starting at modest levels in 1998 and rising eventually to £9,000 a year in the academic year 2012 – 2013, meant universities were now in competition with each other, and trying not only to attract the best students or encourage students to enrol for the courses that best served their goals, but taking any students with the remotest prospect of gaining a degree, provided they could pay the fees. This has resulted in the phenomenon of 38% of students receiving unconditional offers, or offers with “unconditional components”, according to UCAS, this year.  The practice has now come under scrutiny because there is evidence that some of these students have not made as much effort to gain good A level grades as they would have if they’d had targets to meet.  Confusingly, the same quest to beat the competition has made sixth form colleges and secondary schools with sixth forms turn away students who did not achieve high GCSE grades, to preserve the reputation of the school. 

In a partial about-turn, but still with the competitive aim very much in view, some universities are now offering incentives, in the form of bursaries, to students who get the best A level grades; others are offering reduced fees, putting money into “free” accounts for the purchase of study-related materials, or providing first-year students with computers in order to fill all the places they have available.  And although in practice UK universities embrace the concept of “widening participation” with varying degrees of enthusiasm, all are paying it 110% lip service.  But really it is all about bums on seats.

Now others are jumping on the student gravy train.  Banks are offering cash incentives to students opening accounts.  One very famous hardware manufacturer sells a computer costing almost £1000 which, recent adverts suggest, students can’t do without; they’re being offered it via a payment scheme of “only” almost £50 per month.  It is easy for students to get loans, not just from the government, but from banks and other financial providers, including some very dubious ones. 

Students have therefore become big business.  Everyone wants a piece of the cash they do not actually have, but will somehow find ways of obtaining because they believe they are investing in their future.  Sometimes the outcome will be worthwhile; on many occasions it won’t – they’ll either drop out of courses unsuitable for them or which they can’t keep on funding; emerge from university with degrees that don’t fit them for the jobs they want to do; or find that no jobs exist in their chosen field.  And the real scandal is that it is becoming increasingly difficult for them to find someone to turn to for unbiased, well-informed advice before they make these costly decisions.  Schools and universities are likely to put their own vested interests first; many parents still labour under the delusion that if only you can get a degree, the world will be your oyster.

Wouldn’t it be great if the institutions and businesses seeking to make money from students put back a little of that money to set up an independent advisory council for students – something akin to an Ombudsman Service, a financial planning service, a Citizen’s Advice Bureau and a careers advisory service rolled into one?  It wouldn’t close down the gravy-train – to expect that would be too pie-in-the-sky – but at least it would help them to make wiser, better informed choices more suited to their needs. 

Deutsch, Students, Universities

Germany: Universities of Excellence – excellent universities?

The German university system has never had an equivalent to Oxbridge, Russell Group or the Ivy League. This is partially down to the way students are admitted – there are no (or very low) tuition fees and by law each university is obliged to offer all students with a German “Abitur” (A-level/IB equivalent) a place for Higher Education. Only if a certain course has more applicants than places can the university choose – and even then the choice must purely be based on A-level results.

Therefore, German universities are pretty egalitarian and cannot chose their undergraduate students and build a profile in the same way universities in other countries do, and students tend to choose their universities mainly based on location.
In more recent years, universities have been given more freedom to choose their postgraduate and PhD students, based on criteria they themselves can set, but since that is a recently new development it has not yet resulted in the same kind of profile building as UK and US universities have perfected.

Much high-ranking German research happens outside the universities: research societies like the Max-Planck Society, the Leibnitz Association, the Fraunhofer Society or the Helmoltz Association run over 200 non-university research centres and are empowered to award PhDs and PostDoc qualifications.

It may be asked, surely there must be a difference in quality between German universities?

The DFG (“Deutsche Forschungsgemeinschaft”, German Research Foundation) is the main funding body for research at German universities and has been responsible for funding of research in all disciplines since 1937. Over the last 15 years, the DFG has recognised that in order to participate in the international exchange of research and in international university rankings, a certain “elite”  status was necessary for some universities. Therefore in 2004  the DFG started the prestigious “Universities Excellence Initiative”, which initially supported certain “clusters of excellence” at a variety of universities. Effectively, selected interdisciplinary research projects and graduate schools were being awarded special funds for developing outstanding research.

This initiative evolved and was developed further over the years, and in 2019 was re-named the “Excellence Strategy”.  It nominated a selected number of universities as “Universities of Excellence” – awarding these institutions up to €15m annualy for research over a period of 7 years.  When this period time has elapsed,  each university is re-evaluated. On 19 July 2019 the DFG announced the 11 winning universities (list see below) that have been awarded this status.

The universities had to apply for selection and were evaluated by an international commission. The initiative focuses exclusively on research output. Whether or not teaching at these universities is “excellent” remains undecided; the German Council of Science and Humanities (Wissenschaftsrat) and the German Rectors’ Conference (Hochschulrektorenkonferenz) have both made it very clear they have no plans to establish an equivalent to the TEF.

The German “Universities of Excellence” are:

  • RWTH Aachen (Rheinisch Westfälisch Technische Hochschule)
  • “Berlin University Alliance” (including FU Berlin, Humboldt University Berlin, TU Berlin and Charité)
  • University of Bonn (Rheinische Friedrich-Wilhelms-Universität)
  • Technical University of Dresden
  • University of Hamburg
  • Heidelberg University (Ruprechts-Karls-Universität)
  • KIT – Karlsruhe Institute of Technology
  • University of Konstanz
  • LMU – Ludwig Maximilian University of Munich
  • Technical University of Munich
  • University of Tübingen (Eberhard-Karls-Universität).
Learning from Libraries, Libraries, Students

Learning from Libraries – Stress-busting Steven

Universities are now much more aware of the need to support students who are feeling stressed by work pressures and exams.  Librarians, of course, tend to see more of the anguish than academics, who only encounter students occasionally during the examination period. One of the more imaginative and empathetic ways that has been developed to help alleviate stress is to introduce a therapy dog to the library, to provide “animal assisted wellness”.  In 2017 MacOdrum Library at Carleton University (Ontario, Canada) appointed Uncle Steven, a dog named after his first foster carer’s uncle, to be the stress-buster-in-chief at the university. 

Uncle Steven was a rescue dog, a Basset hound saved by the Edmonton Basset Rescue Society from a “puppy mill”.  For seven years he had been kept in a crate and used as a breeding hound.  He had never been in a house or car and did not like to be near men. 

His original foster carer was unable to continue to look after him because she already had two babies and two dogs to look after.  He was therefore adopted by John Vendel and his wife Erika Banski, both of whom are librarians. 

Uncle Steven visited the MacOdrum Library for an hour and a half twice a week during the exam season.  His services were appreciated by university staff and students alike, who played with him and talked to him and found him a very effective therapy dog.  Apparently there is a scientific reason for the remarkable success these dogs are able to achieve: humans release a de-stressing hormone when petting an animal.  10 or 15 minutes spent with Uncle Steven were therefore very effective for calming students (and staff!) and motivating them to take a positive attitude towards their work. John Vendel said that the benefits were two-way: Uncle Steven had been so neglected as a young dog that he was now enjoying the attention and lapping it up. The students who petted him unanimously agreed that he had helped to calm them and make them more cheerful.  John said that he “seemed to know” how anxious students were feeling.

Here is a picture of John with Uncle Steven.  Sadly, Uncle Steven passed away in April this year.  To mark all the good work he had done, at a ceremony in the President’s office his owners, Erika  and John received a “posthumous distinction” award.  Erika is on the left of the photo, wearing a red dress; John is standing next to the President, who is holding the certificate.

Libraries, Pedagogical Resources, Students, Universities

NSS results 2019 and Learning Resources

On Wednesday, the Office for Students published the results of this year’s National Student Survey.

Each year, the NSS results spark discussions about their usefulness and whether or not they actually reflect the performance of a university overall. And every year, universities and service providers keenly await their results and national media celebrates their “winners”.
What we do know is that universities take a great deal of notice of their NSS results and often changes in teaching happen with a view on improving NSS results. This – along with increased tuition fees and student expectations – is one of the factors that contribute to the image of the “student as a customer”.

The NSS data is one of the most important metrics for the TEF, and many Student Unions, who are en large opposed to the way the TEF measures Teaching Excellence, have initiated NSS boycotts in order to invalidate results. The University of Cambridge is one of them, and has been successful for three years in a row. Once again, the response rate for Cambridge has been below the threshold of 50% required for data to be meaningful enough to be published, which means that it will again be unable to participate in the TEF.

But how did those universities do who did get a high enough response rate?

Overall, it can be said that Scottish and Welsh universities have received better feedback from their students than English ones. To the question “Overall, I’m satisfied with the quality of the course”, the University of St. Andrews received the highest number of students agreeing (95.49%). In the top 10 there are 3 Scottish (St. Andrews, Dundee and the Robert Gordon University) and 2 Welsh universities (Aberystwyth, who came second, and Swansea). The Universities of Loughborough, Keele and York top the list of English institutions.

However, these are views on the overall course, and we were particularly interested in section 6 of the NSS, which deals with Learning Resources specifically, including library resources, but also IT infrastructure and access to subject-specific equipment. Of particular interest to us was question 19 – “The library resources (e.g. books, online services and learning spaces) have supported my learning well.”

Looking at this question, students at St. Mary’s University College Belfast were the most appreciative (93.22% agreed with this statement), followed by the University of Leeds (92.85%) and the University of Dundee (92.7%). It is also interesting to see here that 19.12% of students at the University of Reading disagreed with the statement – by far the highest number of students unsatisfied with library resources; while students at Heriot-Watt and Wrexham Glyndwr University were not particularly happy either (around 10% disagreed at each).

It is difficult to come to conclusions when looking at the broad figures, which of course include all subject areas. David Kernohan of WonkHE has helpfully tried to break down the figures by subjects; looking again at question 19 through his lens, it may come as no surprise that students of specialist subjects like Minerals Technology, Computer Games and Animation, Complementary and Alternative Medicine or Drama are particularly dissatisfied with their library resources. However, subjects like Archaeology, Classics and History are also listed high on the dissatisfaction scale, and publishers and librarians should certainly take such mixed results on board. More surprising, maybe, is that students of Nursing, Microbiology and Dentistry are especially happy with their library resources.

Readers of this blog may be amused to discover that overall course dissatisfaction is particularly prevalent with students in Polymer Studies and… Publishing!