Higher education is fundamental for the flourishing of the next generation.
It has the power to curate creativity, give people broader perspectives and expand critical thinking skills. It tests resilience and patience, resolve and the character of those who undergo it, but too often, as in my case, it can also test your health, particularly when personal finances at university and mental health intersect.
I was born in the North East of England, in a town called Thirsk, and state educated. My father was a builder, my mother is a teacher who was a mature student. She never pushed me in the direction of university, but I knew from about the age of 16 that I wanted to go.
When I came to university from my state sixth form in Darlington, I was isolated, not living near campus because the accommodation that I was in was some of the cheapest.
One of the most important growth and development opportunities for students at university is to be part of their community, especially for international students and widening participation students. I didn’t have the chance to properly integrate until I was in my second year and part of a student society.
I had to work throughout my studies until I was elected to my union, partially because I couldn’t afford to live in London without working. While this has given me invaluable skills, we need to begin to shift the conversation away from access to university, and discuss accessibility within it.
For example, when I was elected student union president at King’s, it concerned me how many students are working for more than 20 hours a week to stay in London. It is difficult to know what the solution to this should be, without proper data, but this is clear: many students still struggle with the cost of living.
In my case, I accessed university counselling at the beginning of my second sabbatical year, when I was elected president, and completed a course of cognitive behavioural therapy over several weeks. Money was a large concern for me.
Counselling did help to me work through a lot of things. My poor health often stemmed from a sense of alienation and from a feeling of constantly needing to prove myself and my worth in such a renowned institution. However, the processes for accessing institutional support are often unclear.
This is a struggle shared by students across the sector.
To support this, research from the King’s Behavioural Insights Team found that widening participation students tend to respond more actively when asked about community, whereas non-widening participation students tend to respond better to messages about employability.
Our role as Office for Students board members is now to be receptive, reflective and to react to student issues as we work to place them at the heart of the new regulator, and this includes the cost of living.
The OfS has the role of providing students with a proper choice between institutions, and strengthening information, advice and guidance to reflect this. This depends upon access to transparent data on different support mechanisms offered by institutions.
It may also involve promotion of further interventions in terms of student engagement in partnerships between further education institutions and higher education providers, because there is currently a lack of this type of collaboration in the sector.
This may help to bridge the gap between impressions and choices made before application, and the tangible experience of participation at university.
The insights that I have raised, over the need for more accurate information, advice and guidance on the expectations that students should have of university life, and the next steps that we need to take in assessing student access to opportunities at different stages of their lifecycle, are ambitions shared by the student panel and the OfS.
I am in this role after two wonderful but often challenging years as a student representative, because I believe that the steps taken on access, participation, continuation and success have transformed many lives, including mine.
But we should not stop until participation rates increase further. We should work so that students know what support they can receive, increase the quality of this and enable students to access opportunities at every stage of their learning.
Benjamin Hunt was president of King’s College London Students’ Union in 2016-17 and is now a member of the Office for Students’ student panel. This blog is based on a speech that he gave at the OfS’ launch conference in Westminister on 28 February.