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Which factors most affect student wellbeing?

Professor Tim Blackman, Vice-Chancellor of the Open University

Students with few or no helpful teachers are 146% more likely to report a high level of dissatisfaction with life

Professor Tim Blackman, Vice-Chancellor of the Open University, has applied sophisticated statistical techniques to the most recent HEPI / Advance HE Student Academic Experience Survey results in order to see which factors most affect student wellbeing.

Tim Blackman is Vice-Chancellor of The Open University. He was previously Vice-Chancellor of Middlesex University. His professorial appointments include Oxford Brookes, Teesside, Durham, the OU and Middlesex.

The HEPI / Advance HE Student Academic Experience Survey covers over 14,000 full-time students each year and includes four questions on wellbeing, originally created by the Office for National Statistics, with respondents asked to rank themselves from 0 (low) to 10 (high).

The key findings in What affects student wellbeing? (HEPI Policy Note 21) include:

  1. a relationship between ethnic identity and dissatisfaction with life, with life satisfaction scores of under 7 (on a 0-to-10 scale) varying from 42% among Bangladeshi students to 28% among White students
  2. a similar relationship between ethnic identity and anxiety, with anxiety scores of 7 or more ranging from 27% among Mixed identity students to 21% among Black African students
  3. more dissatisfaction with life among students from the lowest participation quintile than from the highest participation quintile (35% vs 30%)
  4. higher dissatisfaction with life among students who live at home while studying and who commute more than five miles (37%) than among those who have relocated to their place of study (30%)
  5. only 12% of students who relocate to study work 12 or more hours a week compared to 25% of students who continue living at home – but longer working hours have no significant effect on anxiety and only a small negative effect on life satisfaction
  6. 62% of students think all or most staff are helpful and supportive, while 22% say half and half are and 7% say few or none are
  7. as the proportion of staff experienced as helpful and supportive declines, the proportion of students reporting high anxiety rises, from 22% to 33%
  8. dissatisfaction with life is reported by 24% of students who feel all or most staff are helpful and supportive, but this rises to 49% among students who feel few or no staff are helpful and supportive
  9. when logistic regression is applied to the data to find out the actual independent effect of each variable, students who say they experience few or no helpful teachers are seen to be 146% more likely to report a high level of life dissatisfaction than students who report all or most teachers are helpful
  10. logistic regression also shows students who report few or no helpful teachers are 65% more likely to report a high level of anxiety than students who report all or most teachers as helpful

Tim Blackman, Vice-Chancellor of the Open University and the author of the report, said:

Student wellbeing is often seen through the lens of counselling and mental health support. This new analysis identifies other possible factors that may increase the risk of particularly high levels of anxiety and dissatisfaction with life among higher education students. 

Can some of the drivers of high levels of poor wellbeing among students be the way that we as universities and a sector undertake teaching and assessment? Can we look at student wellbeing and learn from good practice in the workplace, where stress is often seen in terms of how work is organised?

While we cannot rule out that students become more dissatisfied or anxious for other reasons than the factors identified in this report, the statistical evidence found in these data suggests a wellbeing gain from improving teaching and feedback.

Higher education institutions should see increasing their students’ experiences of helpful teachers and useful feedback not just as important to student achievement but also as part of their wellbeing strategies.

Nick Hillman, Director of the Higher Education Policy Institute, said:

We have been collecting large amounts of data on the student experience since 2006. This helps us understand how students’ lives have changed as their mental health has deteriorated.

This new analysis allows us to understand in more detail than before what makes students tick. It proves beyond reasonable doubt that there is a close link between teaching quality and student wellbeing. You cannot choose to focus on one or the other.

Any institution that wants to raise its levels of student wellbeing should invest in teaching staff who know how to interact with students effectively and have the time to do so.

Jonathan Neves, Advance HE’s Head of Business Intelligence & Surveys, said:

Wellbeing has become a really important aspect of our jointly-run annual Student Academic Experience Survey with HEPI. Our data have played a key role in highlighting what is an increasingly worrying trend across the student body.

Using four established wellbeing measures allows us to produce clear comparisons between students and the general population over time. There are a wide range of demographic factors that potentially link to low levels of wellbeing but this paper breaks new ground in identifying the critical importance of teaching and feedback, highlighting how academic practice and welfare strategies may benefit from further alignment.

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