The Place for Wellbeing in the Student University Experience
The pandemic has provided an opportunity like no other for individuals from all backgrounds, students and staff, to reflect on what wellbeing means to them. Experiencing a global event like COVID-19 is a unique experience and when mixed with the day-to-day realities of trying to study, and to teach and engage students, the reality is wellbeing can change as we move through the month, week or even day. But how important is it to the student experience, and is it something that needs better integration throughout the whole university experience? At Student Hubs, we would argue it’s worth consideration. If we want students to thrive in their academic careers at university, an integral part of that experience for students is feeling connected to a peer group, to their university, and to the place they inhabit. These core aspects of experience, and the positive influence on wellbeing students can receive through them, have been in flux throughout the pandemic, and it’s likely to continue due to the lingering long-term impact. But at Student Hubs, by converting our programmes to virtual offerings and thoughtfully creating opportunities for students even at this time, we have managed to retain the core pillars of that experience and as a result, seen students reporting higher wellbeing as a direct result of these activities.
Student Hubs’ approach:
Student Hubs is a national charity, working in partnership with the University of Bristol, University of Cambridge, Kingston University, University of Southampton and University of Winchester to deliver practical volunteering programmes, skilled placements, project incubation and in-curriculum projects. In 2019-20, we worked with 1800+ students across our network, with students reaching 1100+ community participants in our Hub regions. We work with universities to expand the reach of their delivery, sitting in departments like Careers or Widening Participation to bridge gaps in student engagement and send students into projects that work with disadvantaged or in-need community groups, having a dual impact on both students and communities. We also build trust in the students we work with to upskill them, build their confidence and encourage them to access the full range of opportunities universities have to offer. Since 2018-19 we have collected self-reported data from students about the impact our programmes have on their wellbeing amongst various other outcomes, and the results are strong. In our 2018-19 Impact Report, across our Hub network of universities we saw 69% of students reporting that taking part in Hub activities enhanced their wellbeing, and we saw this figure rise to 73% in our 2019-20 Impact Report. We are still finishing collecting our data from the 2020-21 academic year (as our delivery has extended due to the pandemic), but initial results appear that this overall statistic will rise again.
What our impact data says:
In our skilled placements (all virtual this year), where students act as consultants for charities and social enterprises across a termly project which culminates in a report and presentation showcase, we saw a big rise in this figure. In our 2020-21 impact reporting for our Social Innovation Programme cohorts (107 students across 3 of our Hubs at the University of Bristol, University of Cambridge and University of Winchester) we saw the following outcomes:
In wellbeing and university experience:
- 80% of students agreed that participating in this activity enhanced their wellbeing;
- 94% of students agreed their university experience had been enhanced by participating in this activity;
- 100% of students agreed that taking part in this activity introduced them to people they otherwise wouldn’t have met;
- 95% of students agreed that this activity had given them access to opportunities they otherwise wouldn’t have had;
- 88% of students felt connected to other volunteers;
- 62% of students felt connected to their local community.
In employability skills:
- 94% of students agreed they had developed their professional skills through this activity;
- 91% of students agreed their participation in this activity improved their ability to adapt and overcome challenges;
- 91% of students agreed their participation in this activity increased their confidence in approaching challenges;
- 97% of students agreed that their participation in this activity improved their ability to work with others to make change and 73% agreed that this activity improved their ability to lead others to make change.
This is important to consider as though these are programmes which explicitly focus on students’ professional and employability skills, the outcomes for wellbeing are equally as high. Programmes like these can support the wellbeing of students. Developing their networks, confidence, and overall skills is key to creating strong cohorts of graduates, and to the retention of these students in feeling connected as part of their university experience. We also saw this in our practical volunteering programmes. A good case study of this is our Southampton Hub, which works in partnership with the University of Southampton’s Widening Participation team and delivers predominantly volunteering projects that engage young people locally in the city, including virtual tutoring, activity days for referred young people facing disadvantage, engineering workshops and libraries tutoring support:
In wellbeing and university experience:
- 82% agreed that participating in Hub activities had enhanced their wellbeing;
- 80% agreed that participating in Hub activities had enhanced their university experience;
- 93% of students agreed that taking part in this activity introduced them to people they otherwise wouldn’t have met;
- 84% of students agreed that this activity had given them access to opportunities they otherwise wouldn’t have had;
- 63% of students felt connected to other volunteers;
- 72% of students felt connected to their local community.
In employability skills:
- 84% agreed that participating in Hub activities had increased their confidence in approaching challenges;
- 70% agreed that participating in Hub activities had improved their ability to lead others to make change;
- 75% agreed that participating in Hub activities had improved their ability to adapt and overcome challenges;
- 77% agreed that participating in Hub activities had improved their ability to work with others to make change.
Rebuilding student opportunities:
So what does this mean for our attitudes to student opportunities, and the power these have for building students’ employability skills and enhancing their sense of belonging within the university and their community, particularly at a time where activity has been predominantly virtual and not in-person? It means we need to focus on activities which bring students together in a structured way. We need to give them clear guidance, expectations, and space to foster connections with each other. We need to build reflection into activities so students understand what these experiences mean to them, and what they mean for their future in the world of work. Ultimately, we need to invest in these opportunities in the first place. In a year of unprecedented disruption to what the student experience would typically look like, we have seen HEPI and Advance HE report that “29% [of students surveyed] had considered leaving higher education with 34% of those giving mental / emotional health as the primary reason.” Students need to have connections in order to balance the weight of realities of study, and now more than ever they need support to make and sustain those connections. Opportunities are the way to do this, and we shouldn’t lose sight of this as we move beyond the pandemic. Let’s proactively ask our students about their wellbeing, let’s encourage them to reflect on the positives they see from the experiences they have, and how that shapes their overall engagement and enjoyment of the university experience: crucially, before they make that decision to step away from study or any engagement in university life outside of their academic course. For more information on Student Hubs’ work, our university partnerships and our programmes, please contact Fiona Walsh at email@example.com.