Why we need new measures of student well-being

We should pay attention to undergraduates’ physical and mental health, finances, ambitions and expectations, argue David Bell, Marina Della Giusta and Antonia Fernandez

August 6, 2015
Matthew Brazier illustration (6 August 2015)
Source: Matthew Brazier

Is the undergraduate a consumer or not? What should a student expect for £9,000 a year? And what balance needs to be struck between their right to services and their responsibilities as undergraduates? These are among the hottest topics for university leaders today.

“Shock therapy” marketisation since the advent of £9,000 fees in 2012 marks a seismic shift in the relationship between the expectations of those who teach and those who are taught. It is right that universities are investing heavily in the student experience, but too often there is precious little hard insight and analysis behind such efforts.

The National Student Survey has concentrated minds on improving services, but it is not the last word on well-being and student experience. It is, after all, just a snapshot that is open to gaming by institutions. And the devil will be in the detail of the planned teaching excellence framework when the Green Paper is published this autumn. The ambition is right, but the challenge is to give students an accurate, up-to-date and granular analysis with which to compare institutions.

We need a broader, more rounded picture of young people that elucidates their physical and mental health, finances, ambitions and expectations. The reality of life is that academic and non-academic factors usually cannot be separated in students’ minds.

That’s why work at the University of Reading to create a longitudinal dataset of student well-being over the whole academic life cycle, from pre-application to post-graduation, has the potential to be of great value across the sector. This does indeed probe both academic (teaching and learning experience and student expectations and performance) and non-academic factors (health, term-time employment and social life). We already have data from the first five iterations of a survey of 2,000 undergraduates, as well as a number of focus groups. And the findings are fascinating.

First, students’ overall satisfaction with life exactly mirrors that of the UK population more generally. Where 1 is “not at all satisfied” and 7 is “completely satisfied”, the average score is 5.2 for the population as a whole.

Given age and life stage, it is perhaps not surprising that there is a lower percentage of students who are “very satisfied”, but this is compensated for with an increase in the number who are “satisfied”. So the scores hardly suggest that this generation is not enjoying its experience – our students get happier through their course.

Second, overall determinants of student satisfaction are health, finances and accommodation. Many older adults give similar answers. Students are certainly not living in a bubble.

Third, students who expect a high degree class are more likely to be satisfied with life overall – although multiple surveys need to be conducted before we know which comes first, the performance or the happiness.

Fourth, more than 60 per cent of students attend university “to get a good job”. Perhaps this is not surprising, but it is still important feedback – particularly when you discover that by “good” they do not just mean well-paid.

Fifth, students are very optimistic about their academic prospects when they set out, with more than 45 per cent expecting to get a first. Not surprisingly, expectations get more realistic over time, but most still expect a 2:1.

One lesson of all this is that targeting services more effectively and efficiently at the right time is key to addressing problems and, more generally, to equipping students with the tools to look after their own well-being. This begins before they even arrive – ensuring that the transition from home to halls is as stress-free as possible is paramount. Even more important is to make sure that the support on offer during those first few weeks is strong, clear and accessible. Giving students the environment to build confidence and friendships can produce “softer” interventions that help to address the stigma associated with mental health issues; sharing problems can be the first step to solving them, and students are more likely to access support services if they know others have. Our survey highlighted that 39 per cent of students were reluctant to seek counselling because of embarrassment and a lack of clarity on what the service provides.

We are not suggesting mollycoddling students, but rather providing them with skills for both academic and personal success. Emotional health at age 26 is the most important indicator of life satisfaction at 34. And if higher well-being is linked to academic achievement, this, in turn, has consequences in the labour market and broader health and life outcomes. Subjective assessments of life satisfaction have been shown to predict – among other things – life expectancy, productivity, unemployment duration and marriage duration.

So measures of student well-being are a vital complement to measurement of employment outcomes in demonstrating the value of higher education – vital in the battle to protect funding in austere times. They are also in tune with moves in many countries to look beyond the narrow and, in many ways, misleading measure of gross domestic product as an indicator of national well-being.

All universities market themselves on preparing young people for life – but that means more than leaving higher education with a good degree or being in work or study six months after graduation. Making sure that students also leave with the right skills and attributes to be successful, responsible members of society is vitally important both for their own future and for that of the country.

Sir David Bell is vice-chancellor, Marina Della Giusta is associate professor of economics and Antonia Fernandez is teaching fellow in economics at the University of Reading.

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Print headline: It’s time for portraits, not silhouettes, of Generation Y

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