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What's going on in Higher Education?

Time to get tough with the ‘student snowflakes’ rhetoric?

This article critiques the language that the media and universities use to discuss resilience in higher education. The author claims that ‘when we talk about students needing ‘thicker skin’, or cite ‘resilience’ as a solution to HE’s growing mental health crisis, we invoke deficit-based discourses that have no place in our institutions – it’s a stick with which to beat students’.

The article identifies a disjuncture between the supposedly ‘transformative’ effects of the university experience upon students and an understanding held by higher education institutions of resilience as static and innate. The fault, then, lies not with students’ inability to deal with the inevitable hardships of university life, but with the universities that they attend, which invoke a vague vocabulary of resilience ‘to explain away a variety of academic outcomes, including non-continuation’.

The article notes that students from widening participation (WP) backgrounds ‘bear the brunt of HE’s resilience-based stigma’ and concludes that, regarding first generation university students who drop out, their ‘decision should reflect upon universities rather than them’.

SU’s often channel resources into lobbying universities to enhance their WP activities, and into providing support for first generation students post-admission. Most recently, Oxford University Students’ Union has launched a ‘Class Act’ campaign, aimed at helping working class, low income, state comprehensive educated, and first generation students adapt to their new environments and successfully transition into university students. This campaign was launched off the back of research which found that 70% of Russell Group students surveyed felt that ‘[their] class was a barrier when integrating at university’.

More engaging? Making sense of the new NSS

This article analyses a trend which has seen student engagement taken increasingly seriously as a measure of higher education quality. The new National Student Survey questions for those graduating in 2017 both epitomise and perpetuate this trend, since a third of the questions are concerned with engagement in its broadest sense. This understanding of engagement encompasses a lot, ‘from individual motivation in the classroom to feeling empowered to help shape a community of staff and students. It is pleasing’ the author notes, ‘to see that the survey addresses the nuance of what is often a blanket term’.

The article highlights research which suggests that student engagement positively correlates with ‘retention, attainment and progression, particularly for students from less “traditional” backgrounds’. This ideological shift has therefore been welcomed by many in the sector, including those wanting to see a move away from ‘the market-based conception of “students as consumers” towards a more collaborative, community-based approach that values educators and students as partners’.

The new NSS also asks whether the ‘students’ union effectively represents students’ academic interests’. This reflects a narrower focus than the question it replaces, which asked about student satisfaction with ‘all the services, including support, activities and academic representation provided by the students’ union’. The author is optimistic that this academic focus will ‘shift the thinking of many CEOs towards better resourcing of academic representation, and that universities will step up to the plate when it comes to working in partnership and providing financial support to their students’ unions’.

Highlights from the week’s papers

Smarten up: focusing on student employability from the start recommends that universities focus more energy on helping students to view themselves as professionals.

New National Union of Students leader is determined to make equality her cause; an interview with new NUS President, Shakira Martin.



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