As a sector, Higher Education is well-rehearsed in making the case for the economic benefits of completing a university degree. Current political discourse often reminds us of this too.
A graduate is likely to contribute to the UK skills profile, begin to pay back their student loans, and enjoy career prospects that mean they contribute to the economy even further through taxes and spending power. Within this discourse, it is easy to lose sight of the social and emotional benefits gained.
The three years spent at university by the archetypal undergraduate is described by David Willetts as the way that “modern societies best handle [the] transition into adulthood.” Willetts even documents some of the lifetime health benefits that a graduate can expect. One estimate suggests that compared to somebody completing upper secondary education, a graduate can expect to live 2.5 years longer. Although, he does note that this could be the result of selection effects.
So how does this interact with a generation of students empowered in their health and wellbeing?
At Halpin, we have completed numerous student-focused consultations, and one pertinent theme has arisen, regardless of where they are studying. Students know what physical and emotional wellbeing looks like for them and are taking active steps to pursue a healthier lifestyle.
The demographic currently dominating the UK student population is “Generation Z”. Gen Z refers to young people born between 1996 and 2010, characterised by attributes such as environmental consciousness and mental health advocacy. The student voices we’ve heard recently completely reverse the stereotypes of the young person embarking on an independent lifestyle – which usually conjures images of instant noodles and a hectic social schedule. Instead, we are seeing greater investment in self-care, from the foods they are eating to the spaces they are spending time in.
The #studentmentalhealth campaign has almost 35,000 Instagram posts educating students on the physical signs of stress, avoiding burnout, and promoting regular study breaks. Gen Z students are also using wearable technology to monitor fitness and activity, opting for healthier and balanced meal choices, and recognising the need for spaces to wind down in contrast to highly social areas.
For students to pursue this fully, we must also consider some of the wellbeing blows that they may be suffering. Cost-of-living pressures may impact students’ ability to purchase gym memberships, buy healthier ingredients, or take advantage of study breaks if seeking paid part-time employment opportunities.
How are universities engaging with this?
Many universities are one step ahead and have historically promoted opportunities for students to access wellbeing activities relating to exercise, relaxation, and creativity. The University of Manchester advertises “Yoga Breakfast” and “Dissertation De-Stress” sessions and over at Sheffield Hallam University, students could participate in “Create and Chill” or “Mental Health Boxing” throughout July. Numerous students have also emphasised the important synergy between physical and mental wellbeing. For example, how using a bike to get around campus simultaneously offers a quick workout and an opportunity to explore the natural environment with friends.
How can we bridge the gap?
Whilst the role of the graduate in the economy cannot be diminished, we can perhaps start to think about the personal, social, and emotional development of the graduate with similar zeal. Gen Z is set to be the most qualified generation in the UK, but qualifications go far beyond a degree certificate. The development of soft skills is just as important and those aligned to wellbeing – including the way we communicate, empathise with, and include others – are important markers of a healthy professional environment.
Research by Deloitte finds that over half of UK Gen Z people feel stressed all or most of the time and that wellbeing should be a “strategic priority”. Being qualified and workplace-ready in equal measure may manifest in multiple ways. A key aspect of emotional development at university can be found in resilience-building, for example. Finding ways to navigate newly stressful experiences, including pressures around deadlines or managing a busy schedule, create mechanisms which students can return to as graduates and employees. This may also have a high impact on their productivity.
Multiple facets of university services must work together to deliver a student experience that is comprehensive and considerate of the multiple ways a student experiences university life. A lecture which invigorates and excites may be more impactful when paired with relaxing spaces to unwind and connect with friends. Catering provision offering healthier choices may have further advantages when paired with activity sessions promoting positive mental health practices. When aspects of wellbeing – including curiosity and fulfilment, physical health, and social development – work together, they may be most powerful.
So, whilst the economic advantages of completing a university degree should be emphasised, the less overt benefits should receive prominence too. They inevitably work together; a productive employee is one that manages stress well and can communicate with colleagues effectively. A strong problem-solver is one that can devise creative solutions and give their mind the space to ideate. If Gen Z is set to be the most qualified generation to date, the skills that tend not to be recognised by formal certification should also be a part of the package.
Halpin works with universities across four key areas, if you are seeking expert consultancy contact us to find out how we can help.