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17th July 2024
Opinion Learning & Teaching

Who are today’s UK undergraduate students?

1st July 2024


Dr Lucian Tipi CMBE

BLSS Associate Dean Teaching, Education and Student Experience, Birmingham City University

Higher Education (HE) is changing, and one of the most noticeable aspects of this change is the behaviour of our students. It used to be the case that the best of the HE experience was to join a full time undergraduate course; this would give students the full academic engagement, while also allowing the opportunity to form new friendships and to experience university campuses with all they have to offer – great social events, student societies, music nights and the occasional opportunity of doing a paid gig here and there.

This is not a picture that I would recognise today in many HE institutions, particularly post-92. Today, the lives of our students are more complicated, leaving them much less time (if any) to enjoy opportunities offered by their university’s campuses, during the brief time they can afford to spend there. Students join full time courses, while also, in many cases, holding down full time jobs and having other competing priorities drawing on their time. Here is an analysis of 1527 student timetabling change requests (for in-person sessions), made in the Faculty of Business, Law and Social Sciences at Birmingham City University during the 2023-2024 academic year:

*Analysis was carried out on keywords related to the reasons shown in the table. Not all of the reasons that requests were based on are shown in the table above; the focus is on reasons that show significant volumes under relevant themes.

If we focus on the three main themes shown in the table above, we can see that 74% of students need to be able to accommodate work, travel, and care alongside their academic studies. These are not necessarily lifestyle choices, but are reasons borne out of the need to juggle complex lives. Let’s try and reflect a bit on the themes identified above:

  • Travel related: Many students cannot afford to live in university or private accommodation. There is also the likelihood of a link with care and work responsibilities; these will likely start before students join university.

  • Care related: The demographics of students attending BCU is reflective of Birmingham and its region, where most students come from communities where family ties are strong, there is a prevalence of extended families, and care responsibilities are the norm.

  • Work related: This is by far the largest category of students. The need for taking on work to support themselves and their families is prevalent in the context where the majority of BCU students are from deprived backgrounds and likely to be the first in the family to attend university.

These reflections are based on the narratives provided by students when requesting changes to their timetables so that they can best accommodate their academic studies. I expect that the picture painted by the data in the table above is similar across the UK HE sector.

Without any pretence of having carried out an exhaustive study, the data above is starting to tell a story, which sees the ability of our students to engage with their timetabled, in-person, sessions and academic studies impacted by factors outside the control of universities.

This is an important finding in the never-ending quest of trying to understand who our students are, so that we can support them to achieve a good degree at the end of their studies and equip them well to go onto further study or graduate-level employment.

What can we then do, in practical terms, to achieve this goal?

Here are some suggestions:

  • Compress timetabling into 2-3 days maximum, to reduce travel time for everyone and provide more of an incentive to attend and allow work patterns to be better accommodated.

  • Alternatively, provide timetables that allow students to see all opportunities for attending in-person sessions, and allow attendance to any of these sessions (although this presents much more of a logistical challenge).

  • Provide opportunities for online engagement with academic materials, to support students better when they are unable to attend timetabled, in-person, sessions (this approach is also useful for revision purposes).

  • Ensure that we do provide that “added value” to timetabled, in-person, sessions. Currently there is still too much evidence of lecturers “reading from the slides”- well, students can do that for themselves can’t they?

Would any of these suggestions increase students’ engagement with their timetabled, in-person, sessions and academic studies? We won’t know unless we try. One thing is for sure, now that we have greater evidence of who our students are, we can’t ignore the pressures that they are under if we want to provide the best student experience and foster high attainment.