Is higher education a waste of time and money?

Students at a graduation ceremony

The generally-accepted view is that higher education is a sound investment for individuals and society. Bryan Caplan, an American economics professor, challenges this view. Using data on the US to underpin his analysis, the issues he raises are relevant to the UK. David Williams looks at the arguments set out in Caplan’s new book, “The Case Against Education” from a higher education perspective.

In his new book,“The Case Against Education: Why the Education System Is a Waste of Time and Money” (Princeton University Press, 2018), Bryan Caplan argues that many students make the wrong decision in going onto higher-level study, and that society over-invests in education. He distinguishes the private (“selfish”) benefit of higher education, from its value to society.

The reasons why individuals invest in education is explained by signalling. Signalling contrasts with human capital theory which argues that investing in education leads to the accumulation of new knowledge and skills: the individual becomes more productive and is rewarded by higher earnings. Caplan rejects this view. Most of what students learn at college has limited (or no) value to an employer and fails to make them more productive. Most students take jobs which make little use of the knowledge they accumulate at university: “Academic success is a great way to get a good job, but a poor way to learn how to do a good job”.

Qualifications (credentials) signal not just intelligence, but individuals who are conscientious and conform. To secure their qualification a student will have shown resilience in completing their studies, and conformed to various social norms. Seeking new entrants to the workforce, employers select individuals with credentials that signal these characteristics. The root cause of signalling is imperfect information.
Students are engaged in an ‘arms race’. Higher qualifications differentiate students from their peers. The process is one of “credential inflation”. This does not generally lead to higher skills, but redistributes employment in favour of those with the highest credentials.

Caplan does not believe the skill requirements for most jobs have risen significantly in recent years; many workers have more education than they need and some are “overqualified” and under-employed: “The amount of education you need to get a job has risen more than the amount of education you need to do a job.”

Caplan accepts that neither “pure” human capital theory or “pure” signalling fully explains investment in higher education. His best estimate is that signalling accounts for 80% and human capital 20%. The main role of higher education is to certify the quality of labour, and individuals mostly benefit due to signalling.

The ‘sheepskin’ effect, so-called because diploma certificates were once printed on sheepskins, supports the argument for signalling. For a three-year degree it is not the cumulative build-up of knowledge and skills, which leads to a ‘graduate premium’, but completing the final year. What is important is crossing the academic finishing line and gaining the credential. The sheepskin effect applies to all levels of education. If a student drops-out, they are placed with the pool with lower credentials: “If you quit, the signalling model says the market will lump you with the loser and withhold the sheepskin’s reward.”

Completion rates (the ‘completion probability’) in the US are lower than in the UK. Many students would be better-off by not starting a degree. Examining the likelihood of a student dropping out of a course, Caplan selects four representative student categories: ‘Poor’, ‘Fair’, ‘Good’ and ‘Excellent’. Each reflects a level of cognitive ability and typical outcomes. For example, an ‘Excellent’ student is around the 82nd percentile of ability as shown by US General Social Survey (1972-2012) and fits the profile typical of a master’s degree holder. ‘Poor’ students are around the 24th percentile and typically high school drop outs. Academic success is never certain and strongly influenced by academic ability. Largely due to different completion rates, first degrees for Excellent and Good students are a “solid deal”, but the return on investment for Fair (2.3%) and Poor (1%) students is low.

All categories of students who complete a degree programme receive an education premium. However, Caplan argues the premium is not only due to higher education. Correcting for cognitive (30%) and non-cognitive (15%) ability bias reduces the premium enjoyed by graduates over high school graduates to 40%. Further, the actual premium received is influenced by the subject studied. Graduates gain the highest return where subjects map directly to vocational domains. Talking about “the” return on education is misleading; it also depends on what you study. Caplan suggests the intangible benefits of higher education for individuals are typically a small or there is reverse causation.

For public investment and policy, “given the power of signalling, the social case for education is dramatically weaker than the private case.” Societies over-invest in education. Students unlikely to benefit from higher education should be encouraged to enter vocational training.

Individuals should undertake a first degree if they meet the test of being a ‘Good’ or ‘Excellent’ student. Otherwise they are more likely to benefit from vocational education. Caplan suggests research indicates that ability reflects ‘nature’ rather than ‘nurture’ and that forcing some students down an academic pathway is not in their best interests. He argues his “numbers are the most comprehensive” (compared to other similar studies), although accepting some of his assumptions represent a “best guess”. By making his calculations available, Caplan invites others to check his numbers, and model alternative assumptions if they believe these are justified. While many will reject Caplan’s views or prescriptions, his analysis raises important questions. Given the Review of Post-18 Education and Funding in England, Caplan’s analysis is likely to be scrutinised closely.

David Williams is the editor of our governance pages

Take a look at our programme of events to support staff in governance. 

If it’s not working…

In the second of our series of posts for our spring 2018 Equality, Diversity and Inclusion Retreat for higher education leaders and governors, Roger Kline author of The Snowy White Peaks of the NHS and former joint director of the NHS Workforce Race Equality Standard, compares and contrasts approaches to race policy between higher education and NHS.

Eighteen years ago, the Macpherson Report explored institutional racism in the Metropolitan police with implications for UK public services. Research from the time showed that in higher education, black and minority ethnic (BME) staff were disadvantaged in terms of recruitment, employment status and career progression  while BME students were more likely to be found in new universities, were more likely to drop out, were less likely to be awarded good honours degrees and less likely to do well in the labour market.

The Race Relations (Amendment) Act (2000) set out specific duties for universities on both widening participation strategies for students and strengthened equal opportunities for staff. Despite the initiatives this prompted, progress for both BME staff and students (and in senior governance across the sector) has remained glacial. The NHS faces similar challenges. It had not applied to itself the rigour it expects when analysing clinical challenges. There had been no serious evaluation of existing strategies, and a flawed approach to improvement, underpinned by denial of the scale of discrimination.

There is no shortage of evidence about what does and doesn’t work in workforce equality. The Audit Commission (2004) set out a framework of “what works”, our own literature search (2015) came to similar conclusions and informed a three-pronged approach to NHS workforce discrimination:

  1. Reducing workforce race inequality became part of the national NHS commissioning contract making it mandatory for NHS providers (including private sector ones) to demonstrate they are starting to close the gap between the treatment and experience of White and BME staff as captured by nine indicators.
  2. Such progress (or lack of it) became part of the Care Quality Commission regulatory inspection framework, specifically a significant part of the evidence as to whether NHS providers were “well led” or not.
  3. The data is all published, and benchmarked.

The focus was on measurable outcomes not just on improved processes, and the details of such progress (or otherwise), are published every year. In 2016 we then drew from both the literature and best practice across the public and private sectors the “shared characteristics of effective interventions”. We noted how NHS funding sanctions (and incentives) linked to measurable Athena SWAN progress became an effective means of challenging gender discrimination in STEM subjects in higher education.

We noted six key characteristics, as applicable to higher education as they have been to the NHS:

  1. Acknowledge and name the problem. In the NHS, avoidance and denial became no more acceptable in equality than in other NHS challenges such as infection control or mortality rates. In higher education, the post MacPherson Hefce funding letters were not explicit about race or ethnicity and the performance indicators used related to social class as a proxy instead. As early as 2005 Hefce reported that the initiatives ‘appear to have had the greatest impact on the role and reward of women in the majority of institutions’ and as a result ‘the role of minority ethnic groups.. has received much less emphasis…compared to the emphasis on gender equality’.
  2. Insist on detailed scrutiny of workforce and staff survey data to identify the specific challenges that NHS Trusts as a whole, or individual departments or services or occupations may have on race equality. Don’t hide from uncomfortable facts. Crucially, listen and act on what BME staff and students say.
  3. See workforce equality as integral to service improvement not just to compliance – as part of providing better services and improving staff well-being, not as a separate discrete task. The Leadership Foundation and the Equality Challenge Unit are working to demonstrate the links between treating BME staff well and the benefits to students and the organisation, not just the BME staff. We learnt it is essential to have a powerful evidenced narrative that explains how discriminatory recruitment, development and appointment systems, for example, waste talent and impact adversely on service provision whether it be patient care (or on the teaching and support of BME students, the talent pool for research, and the effectiveness of the university).
  4. Learn from previous failed approaches to workforce equality which relied excessively on policies, procedures and diversity training (including unconscious bias training). The literature demonstrates such approaches (as in tackling wider cultural challenges) will not work in isolation and excessively rely on individual members of staff being brave or foolish enough to raise concerns, complaints or grievances about discrimination. Senior institutional leadership must take prime responsibility, for example, for talent management and career development and be proactive in developing staff and challenging discrimination, in a radical break with the culture of allowing departments to recruit, often developing and promoting “people like us” or those who might “best fit in”. 
  5. Strategies and specific interventions must be evidence driven and be able to answer the question “why do you think this will work?”
  6. Above all, accountability is crucial. Unless leaders model the behaviours expected of others, face uncomfortable truths, are held to account and hold others to account, insisting on evidenced interventions with locally developed targets, even the best intentions will not bring about change.

This approach has shown some early and significant progress. For example, some 2000 additional BME nurses and midwives appear to have gained more senior positions in 2014-2017 whilst the relative likelihood of BME staff being disciplined has started falling.

Despite the best efforts of the Leadership Foundation, Equality Challenge Unit and others in higher education institutions I sense similar challenges to those the NHS faces. The Civil Service have recently adopted a completely new strategy using similar principles. The Leadership Foundation’s Retreat (for senior executives and governors in universities) in April might usefully consider whether the time has come to consider adopting similar principles, including whether Hefce funding should be linked to HEIs demonstrating measurable improvement year-on-year in the treatment and experience of both staff and students from BME backgrounds compared to that of White staff and students. Ministers are supporting that approach in the NHS and the civil service. Why not in higher education?

Roger Kline is the author of The Snowy White Peaks of the NHS and was joint director of the NHS Workforce Race Equality Standard for its first two years (2015-2017). He is Research Fellow at Middlesex University Business School.

Read the first blog in this series, Diversity – are universities sincerely up for change? by Simon Fanshawe, Leadership Foundation associate and partner at Diversity by Design. 

Diversifying Leadership alumnus: ‘I realised I’m a strong asset’

Lawrence Lartey, student employability and progression practitioner at University of the Arts London, took part in Diversifying Leadership in 2016. Diversifying Leadership is the Leadership Foundation’s programme for BME early career academic and professional services staff. Two years after finishing the programme, Lawrence reflects on his experience.

What made you apply to be a participant on the Diversifying Leadership programme?
Initially I applied because I felt I was stagnant at my place of work, and I could not see ways that I could further my career. I applied as I knew I would be around other academics in similar situations. I wanted to pause, learn and explore ways to help myself develop as a person, and also look at strategies to develop my career.

What were your key leadership takeaways?
There were so many takeaways. One that was key for me was learning that the way I lead is authentic and credible in an academic setting. I embody everything I do naturally and channel it through my work. I completed the course feeling empowered and more confident than when I started.

One of the unique elements of the programme is that participants work with a sponsor. How did this relationship help you increase your influence in your institution?
My sponsor was incredible, he really invested in me. He took a real interest in my progression and coached me into demonstrating my value to my employers. What I mean by this is that I was doing such important and innovative work, he helped me see how the work had tangible research potential and how I could publicise the project in order to make the right people aware.

Many participants speak about a “lightbulb moment” on the programme when they have a real sense of clarity about their strategy for progression. What was yours?
There were two really. The first was when I decided a PhD was not my priority, even though 70% of the participants on the course with me had or were studying for one. Deciding against a PhD really freed-up my thinking. My second lightbulb moment was realising that I’m a qualified academic, engaged in the creative industries with a thesis of mine having been turned into a BBC documentary. I realised I’m a strong asset, the right people at the institution need to know this.  

How would you respond to those who criticise programmes like Diversifying Leadership because they are based on a deficit model?
How you measure the impact of any programme is dependent on one’s definition of success. How do you quantify success? There is a real issue around representation and leadership in higher education. As a result of the programme I’m now in a contracted position in my establishment. There has been significant distance travelled, and I’ve been leading high profile projects. My response to those who criticise the programme is that, there are representation issues in higher education (gender race etc) and Diversifying Leadership is making attempts to address the issues, and sometimes focussing on the issue and unpicking it provides a resolution.

Tell us about your current role
My role at University of the Arts London as a student employability and progression practitioner really allows me to use my industry contacts to ensure our students are equipped to progress into the creative sector. I also explore ways to open up exchange opportunities for students to study in other countries via projects such as the NYLON exchange project (in partnership with entrepreneur and music producer Jay Z’s Shawn Carter Foundation).

What are you working on at the moment?
I’m working with Jay Z and his Shawn Carter Foundation on another international exchange taking place in summer 2018. The project is going from strength to strength with some of his scholars spending part of their semester at University of Arts London colleges. I’m also working on a great initiative with global creative agency Exposure, looking at how we prepare the next generation of creative leaders. For the last year and a half, I’ve also been developing a cultural leadership programme with the Obama Foundation, we’re looking to enrol the first cohort of students in 2018, on a bespoke creative sector leadership programme. The programme will take place in Boston and London.


Diversifying Leadership

The Diversifying Leadership programme is designed to support early career academics and professional services staff  from black and minority ethnic backgrounds who are about to take their first steps into a leadership role.

Limited spaces remain on Diversifying Leadership 7 which runs from April-June 2018. Find out more.

Equality and Diversity

Diversifying Leadership is part of our Equality and Diversity programme. Join us at our BME Summit on May 16find out more hereLearn more about our other diversity programmes by following this link. 

The Longitudinal Study 

The Diversifying Leadership programme is the subject of a longitudinal study, “Cracking the ‘concrete ceiling'”, which is due for publication later this year. Find out more. 

 

Core stability – the journey towards work/life balance

Professor Shân Wareing is pro vice-chancellor for Education and Student Experience at London South Bank University (LSBU) and a professor of Teaching in Higher Education. She recently spoke at Aurora in London and Edinburgh about her personal experience as a senior female leader during Power and Politics. Shân has also recently spoken at Leadership Matters and Preparing for Senior Strategic Leadership. Here, she reflects on her work life balance which formed part of her talk at Aurora this year.

“How we spend our days is how we spend our lives”
(Anne Dillard, quoted in Scott 2003, p80)

Like most people, there are plenty of times I don’t feel I’ve got my work/life balance right, but perhaps strangely, it was worse when I was a lecturer completing my PhD than now when I have three children and more senior job. Along the way, these are some of the ideas and habits that have helped me.

Know your purpose
To work out what balance is right for you, and how to achieve it, you need to be clear about what you want to achieve in life, what your purpose is. In one of my first jobs, a senior colleague had a poster on his wall that said “No one on their death bed wishes they’d spent more time in the office!” and I thought “Hmm, but perhaps I’ll wish I’d achieved more!”  Imagining myself in old age, reflecting on what might cause me to feel pride or regret helped me identify what mattered to me. Being very clear about what is important to you helps you allocate your time and keep things in proportion. That sense of proportion is vital to regulate our emotional response to events at work, which in my experience exact a heavy toll on me if I feel I am living out of alignment with my sense of purpose.

Planning is key
If you know where you’re heading, you can make a plan. And a plan allows you to identify the best opportunities for you, to estimate if you can take on new work without having a melt down, and to prioritise and selectively ignore things.  This is important to protect you from being buffeted by every policy whim, incident, metric, new piece of research, sector panic, and so on. Having a plan helps you spot if you are drawn off your plan too much by fire fighting. I always assume that up to 10% of each day or week will be spent in emergency unplanned reactive activity, but if it starts to increase regularly beyond 10% I need to change my plans to focus more on eliminating the causes of the fire fighting.

The 80:20 Principle
I’ll always have too much work, and probably so will you! In the endless tail of work that is never totally cleared, I have an arbitrary self-imposed cut off point. To minimise the distress of never ticking off everything on my To Do list, the 80:20 principle helps.  If 80% of the benefit comes from 20% of my work and I am fairly sure I’ve done the important 20%, I can go home a bit earlier. Looking at my To Do list regularly from an 80:20 perspective is also important to avoid the feeling that I need to be busy to feel productive. Needing to be busy is the enemy of work/life balance!

Work with and for your team
When the work suddenly piles on, it is easy to feel too busy to talk to people, and I have to fight this instinct! In a management role, and many other roles, people are the job, not an inconvenient extra. The better my team relationships, the more adept my teams are at handling their everyday work and sorting out anything unexpected, which means fewer unpleasant surprises for me. I have found I have a better work/life balance as a manager by talking and listening to my teams. Also working though others is a chance to increase their capability so a win-win for everyone. I could work five hours extra every week but it’s worth a lot less to the university than if I can enable a team of staff to be 10% more productive. To be effective, delegation needs to be in the context of purpose and planning, not random or opportunistic. The better I plan and the higher functioning my teams, the less random rubbish happens, and the earlier we all go home.

Avoid emotional leakage
A lot of stress and unnecessary work comes from emotional leakage – anxiety, fear, hostility, resentment  triggered by projects and people. Work/life balance is not just about what you choose to spend time on, it’s also about how you feel about things. As far as humanly possible it helps not to sink emotion into stuff where it can’t have any positive effect.

Be in the habit of taking care of yourself.
I noticed in pregnancy that what I ate one day had an effect on my mood the next day (protein and vegetables, good; only chocolate all day, bad), and I decided this was probably an exaggerated version of what happens anyway, so I tidied up my eating habits a bit (aiming to avoid chocolate-only days). And I also notice exercise helps my will power.  When I exercise, I’m better able to make myself do stuff I don’t want to do.

Invest in your own growth
Seek out development opportunities that take you in the direction you’re heading.  However experienced and senior you become, you never stop needing to learn. ‘Sharpen the axe’, Stephen Covey calls it.  And to lighten cognitive load (ie fewer things to think about or make decisions about), it really helps to have habits and routines. Barak Obama is reported to have said “You’ll see I wear only gray or blue suits. I’m trying to pare down decisions. I don’t want to make decisions about what I’m eating or wearing. Because I have too many other decisions to make.”

Look for happiness
Another tip from maternity leave and days where it seemed like nothing got done is to remember to pat myself on the back for what I have achieved, not beat myself up for what I haven’t.  Dwelling on what is good about my professional and personal life isn’t about being smug or complacent – it is a necessary exercise in order to sustain optimism for vision and planning.

I still get bad days when it all gets too much, but not so much, and falling back on these principles helps. And for the very impatient readers out there who skimmed to the end, the super-efficient version is: (1) work out what matters to you and do that; and (2) count your blessings.


Further reading
Scott, Susan (2003) Fierce Conversations. London: Piatkus
Covey, Stephen (2004) The 7 habits of highly effective people. London: Simon and Schuster

About Aurora
Aurora is the Leadership Foundation’s women-only leadership development programme. Aurora was created in 2013 in response to our own research that shows that women are under-represented in senior leadership positions and identified actions that could be taken to change this. Since Aurora began in 2013 we have welcomed 3,477 women from 139 universities and sector bodies, with 1029 women attending in 2016-17 alone.

The Aurora Conference- Thursday 7 June 2018
We are delighted to be launching our fourth Aurora conference.

Participants include, but are not limited to:

    • Aurora participants (current and alumnae)
    • Aurora champions
    • Aurora role models
    • Aurora mentors
    • People working in/leading equality and diversity

Find out more and book

Demystifying Finance – Wednesday 18 April 2018
For women in higher education who want to improve their understanding of finance in higher education and develop financial management skills.

Find out more and book

Leadership Matters
Leadership Matters is our programme for senior women leaders in higher education and will be taking place in Manchester and Bristol in Winter and Spring respectively in 2018. For more information and to book a place please click here.

Preparing for Senior Strategic Leadership
Preparing for Senior Strategic Leadership is one of our most highly regarded programmes. It will take place once more this academic year:

PSSL Summer
Application Deadline: 8 June 2018
Programme Dates: Tuesday 19 – Friday 22 June
Location: Manchester

Leslie Shoemaker: inspired by Aurora

Leslie Shoemaker is a lecturer at Dublin Institute of Technology. She took part in Aurora Dublin in 2016-17. Since completing Aurora, Leslie has set up the ESTeEM (Equality in Science and Technology by Engaged Engineering Mentoring) programme at her campus and is now the programme’s coordinator. Here Leslie reflects on how she was able to use elements from Aurora, such as mentorship, to inspire ESTeEM’s format.

When the application process opened for Aurora I knew immediately this was not only something I wanted to do but something I had to do. I was stuck in a rut at work for a variety of reasons. Although I had managed large projects and events in the past I felt like I was lacking in formal training in leadership and management so didn’t have the confidence to know whether I was doing it right. I have picked up leadership skills over the years but I hadn’t taken the time to reflect on why I needed these skills and how I had acquired them. My leadership decisions had an effect on other individuals as well as the projects I was working on, I didn’t want to create an adverse impact due to my lack of knowledge about leadership.

When writing my application, I realised that although I wanted these leadership skills for myself, I could also try and become an ‘everyday’ role model for my female students. The module I teach is for first year students on the soft skills needed in Computer Science, Engineering and Science subjects. It would not be uncommon to have small numbers of female students, if any at all, in what can be very male dominated classes. I began to see how Aurora was an opportunity to bring my knowledge back to these young women and make a positive impact in their lives. I just needed to work out how I could do this effectively.

I was delighted when I found out my Aurora application had been successful.

The Aurora sessions and reading materials provided me with an opportunity to step back and reflect while also learning new leadership tips, tools, and skills. I began to understand how ‘normal’ my thoughts, feelings and experiences were. But regardless of how much I was getting out of these sessions for myself, I couldn’t shake the niggling feeling there was more I could do for my female students.

In March 2017 when I was a little over halfway through the programme, I had a brain wave: adapt the Aurora model to a target audience of female students studying Engineering on the site where I work (the Dublin Institute of Technology has two Engineering campuses). During Aurora each participant is given a mentor. My idea was to recruit female Engineers who are working in industry to mentor young women who are studying engineering. The mentoring would happen over a series of five lunches each academic year and the mentor would ideally stay with the student for the duration of her academic career in this college. After a couple of phone calls and meetings not only was my immediate boss behind me but I had two major international engineering companies, Arup and Schneider Electric, sign up to the project. The ESTeEM programme, Equality in Science and Technology by Engaged Engineering Mentoring, was born.

On 9 October 2017 we had our launch and our first lunch. Currently I have 35 young women participating in the initiative and they range from first year students right through to post graduate students. In addition, there are fourteen female mentors from Schneider Electric and Arup who are graciously giving their time, knowledge and experience to this programme. The buzz in the room during this first lunch was amazing. Both the mentors and the students were clearly excited during the event and the feedback from everyone has been overwhelmingly positive.

Despite this great start I recognise I still have some battles to fight such as helping some of the current female engineering students see why a programme like this is of relevance (I have had about a 60% uptake on the programme from the students who are studying engineering on this campus) and I would like to expand the ESTeEM programme to the other engineering campus. With thanks to Aurora I have a better idea of how to approach the challenges I face but know that I will get there.

I also understand that I will make mistakes along the way but I know this is part of my leadership development. The standards I was holding myself to in order to ‘prove’ my worth because I am a woman working in a male dominated area are not as rigid these days, which is a nice change for me (and very possibly others who I work with). I am thankful I was provided with the opportunity to take time out to learn more about myself and leadership but I am hopeful that ESTeEM will make a difference in the same way for my students Aurora has for me.

So fellow Auroran’s embrace the opportunities that come your way or the ones that you create and feel able to take risks, even if it means feeling really uncomfortable because that will pass in time. We are often our own worst critics, let’s show ourselves some self-compassion.


If you would like to find out more about ESTeEM you can contact Leslie here.

Aurora is the Leadership Foundation’s women-only leadership development programme. Aurora was created in 2013 in response to our own research which highlighted women’s under-representation in senior leadership positions and identified actions that could be taken to address this.

Dates, locations and booking for Aurora 2017-18 are available here.

Has the governing body given attention to the institution’s policies and actions in relation to students’ mental health?

the-invisible-problem_cover-graphic-002

David Williams the Leadership Foundation’s governance web editor, highlights one area where governing bodies may need to give increased attention following the recent report from HEPI, on the students’ mental health.

Governing bodies have overall responsibility for the strategic direction and sustainability of higher education institutions (HEIs). Governors are concerned about all matters fundamentally affecting the institution and its sustainability. Typically, amongst the many matters that a governing body will exercise oversight is student recruitment, retention and achievement. An emerging concern will the potential to impact significantly on student retention is mental health.

A new report by the Higher Education Policy Institute (HEPI), ‘The invisible problem? Improving student mental health’, suggests that increasing numbers of HE students are experiencing mental health problems. The report highlights that the matter has significant implications not just for the student, but also the institution. Students experiencing mental health issues are at greater risk of not completing their studies, and the institution facing a loss of tuition fee income. Given the rising incidence of mental health issues, the report suggests governing bodies could consider giving one governor a specific remit to track their institution’s progress in improving mental health support.

The majority of higher education students in the UK enter full-time undergraduate education aged 18 or 19. While these students are classed as adults and able to vote in public elections, less attention is paid to the major transitions they face when entering higher education for the first time.

The HEPI report points out that unlike many other countries the UK has a ‘boarding school model’ of higher education. This means students normally live away from home for the first time.

At precisely the point when they face significant academic and personal changes, including the need to come to terms with new forms of learning and build new friendships, students are separated from their support networks. The increasingly demanding nature of the graduate labour market and rising student debt levels add further pressure on students to do well at university.

Student distress is particularly centered on feelings of stress, anxiety and unhappiness. The report highlights the need for students to develop emotional resilience and learn how to become more compassionate to themselves and others. Cognitive ability on its own is insufficient to ensure student survival and achievement.

Although the data is incomplete and increased levels of disclosure and awareness may account in part for the rising demand falling on university counselling services, the HEPI report suggests there is clear evidence that mental health issues are becoming more common amongst higher education students. The assessment is supported by the responses from HEIs to recent freedom of information requests made by The Guardian newspaper.

The HEPI report questions the level of current support for mental health being provided by some HEIs. Expenditure to support students shows marked variation.

The report cites examples of institutional good practice, but equally suggests that governing bodies need to seek assurance that the institution has a formal mental health policy and associated action plan. A pre-condition for assessing such policies and plans is ensuring the scale of the problem at the institution is understood together with the current level of support offered. Data about the scale of students’ mental health problems tends to be patchy.

If they haven’t already addressed the issue, a governing body should examine the provision provided by their institution to support students with mental health difficulties. Above all, governing bodies need to ensure mental health issues affecting students are understood and appropriately addressed.

David Williams has been by the Leadership Foundation’s governance web editor since 2013. He has worked with the governing bodies and senior leadership teams of different higher education institutions for over 20 years.

Editor’s notes

  1. For a full set of briefing guides on governance edited by David, please go to www.lfhe.ac.uk/govbriefings
  2. Read the latest news on governance, including the latest newspiece by David on students’ mental health and the role of governing bodies, click here
  3. Other blogs on governance include:
    Book Review: What can governance in higher education learn from other sectors?Book review: Nonprofit Governance
    How can universities enhance the strategic development of the academic portfolio?Poland’s rapid response to change in higher education makes it a hidden gem

10 ways to engage students in online learning and teaching

Dr Paul Gentle shares good practice in getting the most from involving students in change projects.

One of the most rewarding aspects of working on Changing the Learning Landscape lies in the opportunities for learning about inspiring and effective practice.

The Leading in the Learning Landscape Network is a good example of this. Our most recent network event, on 27 February, brought together colleagues from 14 institutions which are diversely passionate in their commitment to driving forward strategic change in online learning and teaching.

There were two powerful triggers for engaging sets of conversations on the day, and both shared common attributes of engaging students in the change process, and of being strongly supported by senior management teams in their respective institutions (the University of Roehampton and Sheffield Hallam University).

One fruitful outcome of group conversations across the day was sharing a set of pointers to good practice in how to engage students in significant change in learning and teaching.

These are:

1. Use wikis or Google docs to enable students to play an active part in strategy development (and feed back to students on which of their ideas have been acted on)
2. Work to build in student engagement into teaching practices by academic teams
3. Bear in mind that students don’t know “everything” about technologies or their potential application; but they can help academics to consider how to incorporate technological innovations within programmes
4. Paying attention to ‘hygiene factors’ is important in planning student engagement activities (including timing, availability of food, refreshments and other small incentives)
5. Seek students’ views on what good looks like (‘What needs to go right for you?’)
6. Incorporate feedback to students on the quality of their contributions to the change process; make sure this has developmental benefits for students
7. Don’t try to engage students in whole-institution change conversations: keep it meaningful by relating to their experience at programme or department level
8. Make sure it matters to students; articulate what’s in it for them
9. Get diverse views by engaging in different ways, using different media
10. Assume students are reasonable, and don’t expect all staff of an institution to change at the same pace and in consistent ways.

We do hope very much that as many as possible of the 60 institutions which have engaged with CLL in 2013-14 will join the network in future. The next network, on Framing and Enhancing Impact in CLL Projects, will be 25 May 2014 in Liverpool. To book a place contact: Bal Sandhu

Dr Paul Gentle is the Leadership Foundation’s director of programmes and programme lead on Changing the Learning Landscape