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Increasing concerns among students about the support that they receive in dealing with the stresses of modern campus life appear to be driving down satisfaction at some UK universities.
Detailed trends data from the Times Higher Education Student Experience Survey, which has been topped by Loughborough University this year, reveal that a number of institutions that have fallen back in the survey overall in the past decade have been hit by dropping scores in areas such as student welfare.
One striking example has been the University of Cambridge, whose average placing in the survey was fourth from 2009 to 2011 but slipped to 17th on average between 2016 and 2018, according to the data from YouthSight, which conducts the survey.
Cambridge’s average indexed score for the “student welfare” category of the survey has fallen more than six points from 2009-11 to 2016-18, the biggest drop in the sector.
Daisy Eyre, president of Cambridge University Students’ Union, said that high workload was a concern among students at the university and, while the wider institution had attempted to address the problem, this was not always followed through by colleges and departments.
“The problem is that Cambridge is so obsessed with being an academically rigorous institution that frankly I don’t think that most people who work in [academic] departments are putting a lot of effort into addressing this issue,” she said.
Ms Eyre said that students at a highly selective university like Cambridge also put a lot of pressure on themselves to work hard, but the university “needs to create an atmosphere where students feel like it is OK to spend your time on extracurricular things”.
The burden of higher tuition fees also came into play, Ms Eyre said. “It feels very different to be spending a lot of your time on getting involved in theatre or music or sport when you’re paying a lot of money for your degree,” she said.
Strikingly, the 10 universities that fell the most on welfare were all research-intensive institutions.
Ruth Caleb, who chairs the Mental Wellbeing in Higher Education Working Group and is a well-being consultant at Brunel University London, said her experience was that students were “extremely aware” of the debt burden that they were carrying and of the pressure to make it worthwhile by getting a good job after graduating.
“I think for many students there is a huge amount of anxiety from the moment they come in, and that has changed in the past 10 years. A university course is about employability nowadays, not on growing the whole student,” she said.