Student pastoral care: All the support you'll need

Universities and student unions have joined forces to strengthen welfare networks for undergraduates

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The Independent Online

Starting at university is exciting and daunting in equal measure. While a higher level of study, the chance to make new friends, the increased independence of managing your own money and, perhaps, the adventure of living away from home all sound very exciting, it's also a little scary. Are you clever enough? Will your coursemates like you? Can you manage a budget without sinking? The answer to all these concerns is overwhelmingly yes – and universities and student unions are working together to offer the support you need to thrive.

"Issues can arise when people change their lifestyle so significantly," says Paul Norman, membership services manager at Manchester Metropolitan University (MMU) students' union. "Students might come here from a more sheltered environment, or they might be used to having family around them. Going to somewhere unknown can be hard."

University services and student unions – the latter of whom are represented by the National Union of Students (NUS) – are there to help. "We provide online advice and support through our website, and we work with students' unions to help them support students locally," says Jo Goodman, research and policy officer at the NUS. "University student unions often have advice centres where students can go with anything from money worries to issues about housing or problems with their course. These services offer independent advice."

At Nottingham Trent University (NTU), the university and the union work together and can "cross-promote avenues of support", confirms Marcus Boswell, vice-president of services and communications at the NTU student union. "We share our thoughts, expertise and knowledge of what students go through. So if someone has a certain type of problem, we'll know where to direct them." This combined effort results in a robust support system in most higher education institutions. The success of these is reflected in student satisfaction rates – a score given by final year undergraduates for the quality of teaching, academic support and resources they receive.

The MMU student union's advice centre can help with short-term and longer-term issues, says Norman. "For example, students' funding entitlements may have been misassessed, or there might be housing issues. Some people move in to halls and don't like them – or they may have asked to be in a flat with all women, five minutes from their main building and find themselves in a mixed flat 20 minutes away. We can help people with these types of immediate issues." For ongoing problems, empowerment is often the key to resolution. "Someone who's not happy on their course can usually transfer – but often just knowing that and deciding not to helps them feel in control," says Norman.

Norman describes the MMU union advice centre as a Citizens Advice bureau within the student community. "It offers independent, non-judgmental guidance on housing, academic issues, funding issues and debt." And, like the union at NTU, it works with the university student support services. "We work with the counselling service, for instance," Norman explains. Additionally, every student has a personal tutor, and there are halls wardens – members of staff, living in halls, with a security and pastoral role. "If you find yourself in trouble, it can be quite difficult to ask for help – so having someone else in a professional capacity to make that referral is very important," says Norman.

Information may be available online and via social media, too. At the University of Leeds, the student union website provides information on grants, loans and bursaries, with a special section for new students. Student "money ambassadors" blog about budgeting, give money-saving tips, and share cost-effective recipes. At the advice centre, meanwhile, students can get one-to-one help.

And then there's Freshers' Week, once synonymous with hedonism, which today offers a great deal more than wild parties. "Freshers' Week events enable students to meet each other and form informal support networks," says Goodman. "Unions ensure that there's a range of events – making sure those who don't drink, for example, can get involved. There might also be specific events for groups such as mature students or student parents, and faith societies often run their own welcome events."

There are also measures to provide ongoing support – NTU's Fresherettes being an excellent case in point. "They're students who've been here for at least a year. They receive training to deal with welfare issues, to spot signs of distress, and of Meningitis C," Boswell explains. "They're there to support and guide new students, and they often make friendships that last throughout the years."

"Societies can also help people make friends and build networks, whether that's basket-weaving, rollerblading or rugby league," Norman adds. "They help people feel part of a community, and that helps them to be successful."

"Getting involved in clubs and societies can really help new students feel part of the student body and meet like-minded people," Goodman agrees. "This can help prevent isolation – especially for students who aren't living on campus. It can be a good way to make friends outside the academic environment. Finding ways to stay active – such as joining a sports club – can be really beneficial for a student's mental wellbeing, too, enabling them to meet people, stay active and get involved. So much of university is beyond the classroom. Getting involved in students' union activities can be a really integral part of a student's overall experience."

Looking at the bigger picture, meanwhile, "unions are democratic organisations and officers are elected to represent students on key issues," says Goodman. "If there's a problem facing students at a particular institution, the union can represent them to the university or local authority and campaign proactively for change."