Is it possible to say anything new about student debt in the UK?
With countless politicians, activists, academics, commentators and undergraduates having their say on the tuition fee hikes introduced in 2012, it has become much harder for those researching the issue to make an impact with their findings, even if the subject remains as relevant as ever.
Given the ubiquity of student debt discussions over the past six years, one education researcher decided not to change what she studies, but the medium in which it was communicated.
Employing student artists at her institution, Katy Vigurs, associate professor of higher and professional education at Staffordshire University, has created a “research-informed comic” to illustrate the experiences and anxieties of students now graduating from the £9,000-a-year fee system.
Having published and presented the results from her research, based on interviews with students who had left university with higher debts, in the normal way (journal articles, conference talks), Dr Vigurs wondered whether her work might be better served by a more unusual format.
“The findings were very sobering, but also very visual as students described very graphically how the issue of student finance was affecting them,” she explained.
“It made me think [that] a more visual medium might work, so I contacted our university’s visual arts department,” she added.
The challenge was accepted by students on Staffordshire’s BA in Cartoon and Comic Arts, and Dr Vigurs commissioned a number of them to translate the findings of her project with University of Manchester education scholars Diane Harris and Steven Jones, funded by the Society for Research into Higher Education, into comic strips. Eight of the students she interviewed found their experiences transformed into comic strips for the publication, titled Higher Fees, Higher Debts: Greater Expectations of Graduate Futures? A Research-Informed Comic.
“Student debt was a topic that really spoke to student graphic artists translating the research on to the page – I think it’s partly why they did such a great job,” said Dr Vigurs.
Since sharing some of the comic strips on Twitter, Facebook and LinkedIn, Dr Vigurs said that she has been asked by many universities to send the full comic to their career and financial advisers, students’ unions and senior management teams.
“Some of the emails I’ve had have said that all our staff need to see this,” she said.
“I am not the only academic doing this…but the format does seem to work well with the topic."
The impact of the comic has led Dr Vigurs to re-examine how she approaches research projects in future – and it is an approach that other academics might consider, she said.
“I am going to build a visual way of communicating my research into all of my research projects, including the budget,” she added.