Newcomer welfare is a growing priority for all universities

From even before Freshers’ Week to getting their degree, the network of undergraduate aid is continuing to expand, says Kate Hilpern

Sending your son or daughter to university can be as daunting for you as it is for them. What happens if they can't keep up with their studies? What if they don't feel they fit in? What if they run into financial, practical or emotional problems and don't tell you?

The good news is that student welfare has never been so high on the agenda for universities, with support being offered in myriad ways, as well as increasingly proactively, from before term has started right through to graduation.

It hasn't always been this way. A student starting university 10 years ago could expect a guide in the post, maybe a welcome party and an invitation to a club or two – after which they were pretty much left to get on with it unless there were extreme circumstances. But universities have increasingly recognised that the experience students have in the first few weeks really counts.

At Keele University, pre-arrival events enable students to get to know the campus, meet other students and have a taste of what their new life will be like. Some of these events are aimed at specific groups – including a weekend residential programme for disabled students – while others are aimed at students and their parents.

At GSM London, pre-arrival support includes a dedicated team who offer advice and answers any questions that parents or their offspring have regarding their course or other aspects of student life.

Welcome Week has also become an increasing focus for many universities. "This Autumn we will be launching 'The Bucks Welcome', which has been designed with feedback from first-year students to ramp up the package of support that's available for newcomers," says Ruth Gunstone, director of student experience at Bucks New University.

"There is a huge celebration around graduation and what we wanted to do is replicate that sense of celebration during our Welcome Week. There will be cooking demonstrations, nutrition talks, taster massage and yoga sessions. There will even be visits from local market traders to show students how they can shop more cost-effectively from food stores just a few hundred yards from the university – essentially everything that makes up the student experience. It's an immediate opportunity for new students to settle and start making friends, both those who will be living in High Wycombe and those who will be living at home while studying. We believe an engaging Welcome Week can make a difference in students turning tail and dropping out of university."

Goldsmiths University of London shares the view that the start of student life is essential in terms of feeling supported. "Through our open days, applicant days and other contact, we've really got to know the students, and I'd like to think we've been there for them whenever they've needed us, answering questions about accommodation, funding, course enquiries or anything else," says Peter Austin, press and PR manager at Goldsmiths. "The first few weeks can still be quite nerve-racking though. We'll do what we can do help students relax and enjoy the transition into university life. Welcome Week is a huge part of that and it's something that runs adjacent to the Freshers' Week activities organised by the Students' Union."

Goldsmiths has student ambassadors at train stations and airports to meet and greet, in halls of residence to help with bags and assisting students with getting online, and dotted around the campus to direct. "Welcome Week is an opportunity to showcase the support and facilities we have, too. The student agenda has changed, with raised expectations around employability, the library, and learning and teaching support. Welcome Week is a chance to bring all of those things together in one place to engage students with them from day one, ensuring they extract the maximum value from their time here. Finally, Welcome Week is an important opportunity to enjoy one of the best things about being a student – other students."

In recognition of the growing importance of peer support, universities increasingly run student-mentoring schemes. At Goldsmiths, the peer-assisted learning programme involves a dedicated team of second- and third-year students working in groups within each department to run workshops, social events, academic visits, drop-ins and one-to-ones, with the aim of helping in every aspect of university life that students feel unsure about.

Meanwhile at St George's University of London, there's a "Mums and Dads" scheme, where all new students are matched with senior students who act as their "parents" throughout their time there to provide support in all areas – socially, academically, emotionally, practically, or anything else they need. "This allows students to mix with other years, and strong bonds are formed between the wider 'family' groups," says Gordon Coutts, senior communications officer at St George's, University of London.

Learning and support services have never been more comprehensive. "Ours include access to help from our Royal Literary Fellow, who this year is history and science writer and broadcaster Benjamin Woolley," says Coutts. "As our students are all involved in healthcare and science, writing doesn't necessarily come naturally to many of them and they can find this aspect of their courses a struggle. But this service demonstrates how they can apply narrative techniques to make their scientific writing better."

Regardless of your university, all students can expect to be assigned a personal tutor, who provides regular scheduled meetings to help with academic, emotional, financial or practical issues. If a student feels overwhelmed with the amount of study, the personal tutor might make suggestions, such as mind mapping or using more diagrams to help make sense of lecture notes.

"These personal tutors do a lot of signposting too, so that if they can't help with the problem, they'll find an expert who can, whether that's student counselling, disability support, a financial expert or anyone else," says Pamela Bell-Ashe, director of student services at Birmingham City University. "We have a centre for academic success, and personal tutors often recommend that students use it to help with study skills."

One of the biggest reasons that students drop out is because they feel they don't belong, reports Bell-Ashe. "So a lot of what we do, particularly in the first term, is put on lots of social events, as well as being proactive in recommending that students seek help if they need it," she explains.

Over the last few years, there has been an increasing demand from students for counselling, says Patti Wallace, lead advisor of university and college counselling at the British Association of Counselling and Psychotherapy. "The first reason is the change in the composition of the student population as a result of the Government's 'widening participation' agenda in which young people from a wider range of backgrounds have been encouraged to attend university. While this is an important development in terms of equality of opportunity, it can result in some students feeling isolated and relatively unprepared for their university experience."

A second reason has been a result of budget restrictions in the NHS, which have often meant longer waiting lists for counselling in GP practices, she says. "Most students will not and should not need counselling, but counselling services can make a tremendous difference to those who do require it."

Wallace also adds that services aren't just about individual counselling. "Many students benefit from interventions offered by university counselling services such as learning stress management techniques or mindfulness meditation."

In recognition of the fact that students will often face multiple challenges – such as finances and rental problems – Phil Davis, head of student advice and learning development at Bishop Grosseteste University, says they are working towards a more holistic package of care. "With a generalist advice unit, the idea is that any student can come with any problem and we assist them in much the same way as a Citizens Advice Bureau. We expect to receive enquiries for issues ranging from welfare benefits to managing debts and dealing with creditors. Sometimes students have issues with employment, such as a part-time contract, or housing advice, things like harassment if the landlord keeps coming round without notice."

Most of this support has been around for a long time, says Davis. "The difference now is the extent to which it's developed. The help at hand now covers pretty much any student problem you can think of in a swift, friendly and helpful way."

Help from home goes a long way

It’s not just universities that should be supporting students: parents also have an important role. Here, Patti Wallace, lead advisor of university and college counselling at the British Association of Counselling and Psychotherapy (BACP), explains exactly how parents can help:

  • When visiting prospective universities with your son or daughter, ask about support. If it doesn’t seem high on a university’s agenda, you may want to consider this in your selection.
  • Before your offspring heads off to university, talk with them about some of the difficulties that may arise and how they might cope with them. For example, some students are shocked by the strength of homesickness they feel in the first few weeks, and benefit from reassurance that this passes fairly quickly for most.
  • Teach your offspring to take responsibility for themselves and to manage the practicalities of living without you but with other young people. Make sure they know how to cook, do laundry, clean and clear up after themselves. Not doing these is the cause of many disagreements in shared student housing.
  • Make sure your child knows that you want them to tell you if they have any problems and that you’ll help them sort them out.
  • It’s a difficult balance to attain, but keep in touch with your young person even if they appear not to need or want it. At the same time, accept that they are now living a life separate from you and may not want or need to tell you everything.
  • Encourage them to deal with any problems they have as soon as possible. Sometimes young people don’t want to admit they are struggling and don’t ask for help, which may result in the problem becoming entrenched or more serious, even though the solution is often simple.
  • If you notice changes or think there is something wrong, ask your child directly. There is more harm done by avoiding problems than there is by addressing them.
  • Finally, don’t worry too much, but don’t expect things to go completely smoothly. Most young people manage the transition to university with only minor difficulties
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