Possibly the biggest question in the sector right now is “Where the heck are the students?”. Attendance in classes appears to be down across the HE sector leading to some understandably frustrated tweets (here & here) and students aren’t necessarily replacing face-to-face learning with online activity. Attendance always falls over the course of the academic year as students prioritise coursework over learning new stuff and shift expectations away from attending, but this feels in a different order of magnitude.
If you work in the field, you’ve probably already drawn your own conclusions about why they’re not attending. And you’d be right, but you’re probably also wrong.
So what are the arguments being put forward?
It’s the economy, stupid
One of the strongest arguments is that students have changed their behaviours in response to the changing economic circumstances. Student loans and grants haven’t risen with inflation, so students have less money available to pay for essentials. This has been made worse by the cost of living crisis following the 2022 Russian invasion of Ukraine. Furthermore, the 2020 COVID pandemic showed that it was possible to study in a more semi-detached manner, either by commuting from home or by engaging online and so potentially just working a few extra shifts becomes even easier.
But this is an argument that fits a political narrative, it’s sympathetic to students as victims of a negligent funding system and sympathetic to universities because it’s the fault of great big societal forces and low attendance is not our responsibility. Undoubtedly, this version is partly true. For some students, making ends meet is a major problem and will have a potentially detrimental impact on their quality of learning, but does it account for the dramatic drop in engagement seen during the past two years? I’d argue it’s not enough of an explanation. The most recent UK Engagement Survey (UKES) (Feb-June 2021) reports that 48% of students were working for pay whilst studying. However, the Unite Student Living Report 2004 (pg 15) asked “Do you currently have a job which you are paid to do either full or part-time?”: 42% of students did: working for an average of 14 hours a week.
A significant minority of students have always worked whilst studying. I think that the current economics situation is a problem, but doesn’t explain the whole situation.
Computer says ‘whatever’
The second dominant argument is that it’s the fault of technology. Arguably we’ve stumbled into a world of blended learning without really thinking through the consequences for how students learn. There is good learning in the real world and there is good learning online; I’m not arguing that one is good and one is bad. However, I would argue that asking students to switch modes constantly may present challenges, particularly amongst first year students learning what normal looks like. One of the joys of Zoom or Teams interactions is that it’s possible to start instantly from anywhere without the bothersome commute. University isn’t like college, students aren’t normally required to be on campus all day, anything that gets in the way of learning how to commute is a potential problem.
The other technology-related problem (particularly since COVID) is that we haven’t quite balanced the needs to support students with ‘legitimate’ reasons for not attending and those who simply didn’t turn up. It’s clearly important to make resources available for students who can’t make a class, but doing so also makes it easier for everyone to not attend. Why get up for a 9am lecture when you could just watch it a few hours later online (or even live) from the comfort of your bed? It’s easy to be judgemental about what students ‘should’ be doing, but if you’re getting exactly the same thing from the comfort of your flat, why wouldn’t you?
Isn’t it the mental health crisis?
Perhaps the third commonly-cited strand is that the increasing prevalence of mental health and anxiety amongst young people. In survey after survey, students appear to be more anxious and have poorer mental health when compared to young people and society at large. The logic of this narrative is that being on campus and attending class is too uncomfortable either intellectually or socially for some students and so they cope by avoiding the stress of attending.
For example, the latest Student Academic Experience Survey (SAES) (2022) reports that only 14% of students have low levels of anxiety (I.e. Feel contented or happy with their lot). However, in the 2015 survey, only 12% of students reported very low levels of anxiety. Unfortunately, the 2022 survey doesn’t show all the data, so it’s not clear whether this is a direct comparison. Either way, it is clear that overall student mental health and anxiety is worse than the population at large, it’s just not quite clear whether the proportion of students reporting mental health concerns is stable or growing.
Once again, mental ill health and anxiety is another reason why students may not be attending, but is not perhaps the whole picture.
Actually, I’ll come back to this …
Follow the Money
One issue that I don’t think has had enough attention is funding. Like the proverbial slow-boiled frog, the sector has got used to coping with less and less money each year. In the UK, funding per student has remained static since 2012, meaning that by late 2022, funding had fallen by 28% in real terms. Some institutions may have been backfilling this income from other sources, but losing almost 1/3 of funding is enormous. It means staff are teaching and tutoring more students, with less time to form relationships and it incentivises financial, rather than pedagogic, reasons to adopt blended learning. I worry that the sector’s assumptions are still that the poor old personal tutor can cope by just doing a little bit more each year. Every year.
I have written previously about why I think students attend classes. Hopefully they turn up because the experience is rewarding, enjoyable and valuable. Hopefully they also attend because they have a personal relationship with the person teaching the class. Finally, some will attend because there are consequences of not doing. Reduced funding makes each of these harder. It is, of course, possible to make large classes rewarding, enjoyable and valuable, but it’s more difficult. It’s also much more difficult to have a professional relationship with students you hardly know, never mind the challenges of chasing up large cohorts of absent students.
We talk a lot about belonging in the sector. I’d argue that it’s just possible that some students have a stronger sense of belonging (loyalty even) to the bar or shop that employs them than they do to their course or institution.
I feel this is an invisible factor that we partly ignore because it’s too painful to think about.
Of course it’s bloody COVID.
All the elements were already there: the lack of funding for both students and universities, the tentative moves to online, and student wellbeing issues. COVID was just the flame that ignited the dry kindling. COVID created a further shock to the economy, caused anxiety, pushed students to living at home and forced lecturers to make all of their teaching resources immediately accessible online. Perhaps, most of all, students missed opportunities to bridge the gap between college and university. Some of these opportunities are academic: developing the confidence in the discipline and in learning. Other opportunities are social: the chance to grow, test themselves and develop. Arguably, students are less prepared than ever to learn in ways that universities expect.
But none of these are satisfactory explanations
Well they’re all satisfactory explanations. They’re all true, to differing degrees for different students. But I feel that the miss something important. Students don’t work in big structural models, they (like all of us) make decisions on what feels right, within the context of what is going on around them.
There’s a paper I keep returning to about retention (Castles, 2004). The author puzzled the essential question: why do some students stay on the course despite immense complexities and problems in their personal lives and some drop out after a short cold? Students don’t stop attending because they have a job, they stop attending because turning up for work at that point in time is more valuable than turning up to a lecture. In some cases, turning up for work will always be the right decision, but in others I think it’s far more nuanced.
The other dimension is that (non-) attendance is socially driven. Whenever academics study attendance (for example Newman-Ford et al., 2008), it shows the same essential pattern, it starts well at the beginning of the year and declines steadily over time. Students stop attending collectively. Once a few stop attending, it becomes more and more normalised, until a tipping point is reached when at the end of a module, not attending is more normal than attending.
I think that what we are seeing at the moment is that there are more reasons than ever not to attend and collectively they are quickly pushing students towards the tipping point where not attending becomes normal. I don’t think that the battle is lost yet; but I do think that just assuming we are going to get back to normal after a few years of COVID disruption is a mistake. Our students are going to continue to face challenges that most colleagues in HE didn’t have to when they were at university. We can’t change those external factors. However, we do have control over learning and teaching, transition and induction and we can make our estates more appealing. On top of that I think we also owe it to ourselves to think about how we set expectations, use data and re-think systems to target support at those students who disengage most quickly.
Castles, J., (2004), Persistence and the Adult Learner: Factors Affecting Persistence in Open University Students, Active Learning in Higher Education 2004 5: 166, DOI: 10.1177/1469787404043813
Newman-Ford, L., Fitzgibbon, K., Lloyd, S. & Thomas, S., (2008), A large-scale investigation into the relationship between attendance and attainment: a study using an innovative, electronic attendance monitoring system, Studies in Higher Education 2008, 33, 6, 699-717