Universities, since the introduction of student fees, have seen significant changes and students are paying more for their university education now in the UK than ever before. Naturally, students hope that this investment will land them with their dream job given the level of investment. On the other hand, changes to the higher education system have also seen academics faced with ever-increasing pressures. What is clear, however, is that the relationship between students and academics, and indeed students and the wider university community, needs to be carefully managed to cope with the challenges that both students and academics will face in the future.
From a student perspective, the move to a new university can often mean moving to a completely new place. While this can provide some long-awaited freedom, it also comes with the emotional baggage brought about from being out of one’s own comfort zone. This, according to recent research, has led to growing anxiety among students who do not always transition well into their new environment. According to Universities UK's Mental Well-being Working Group, the number of students seeking support from counsellors has increased by 10% annually since 2015, with over 100,000 students per year now estimated to be seeking assistance from counsellors across Britain’s universities. However, the research also reveals that the reasons for anxiety are often more deep-rooted than homesickness or difficulties in managing relationships with new housemates. The rising cost of studying, concerns about not living up to parental expectations, and the anxiety caused by the uncertainty of the future job market have all played their part in increased student anxiety and depression on Britain’s campuses. These are aspects that academics need to be aware of and engage with positively in order to understand the angle from which students in university today are approaching their life and their study.
Furthermore, especially for undergraduate students, the experience of studying for a degree is vastly different to the experience of studying for A Level exams. Independent thought, self-discipline and independent study are basic requirements for a student wishing to succeed at undergraduate level. However, the difficulty for academics is where to draw the line between encouraging students to pursue independent study, and appearing indifferent towards their work or questions. This is difficult, especially since much of this depends on the perception of those involved in the discussion, and is one that needs to be carefully managed by both the academic and the student.
The government’s perspective, as highlighted in its 2011 White Paper Higher Education: Students at the heart of the system, stated that universities needed to engage with students by delivering ‘a better student experience; improving teaching, assessment, feedback and preparation for the world of work’. While these aspects are very important, the difficulty for the academic is knowing exactly what is required to meet the rising expectations of students. In this aspect, it appears that there is no uniform guide. Consultation with your head of department or dean would be very important in this instance. What does he/she expect you to do for students? Is there a specific time frame in terms of returning student grades? Will he/she support you in the case of a complaint from a student? What are the specific departmental policies concerning feedback, office hours and contact time with students? What are you realistically expected to do for students, and what can you realistically expect from them?
In this respect, an academic’s instinct, and brutal time management skills are essential for survival, in addition to a clear statement from your department concerning the expectations of your relationship with students. Get a clear indication of the expectations concerning what you should do for your students from your department head, and if one is not received, keep asking. Once you are clear, adhere to it closely, while remembering that working through the night and on weekends is detrimental to family relationships and your long-term mental health. Do what can be reasonably expected of you, but not more or less than your colleagues.