opinion: the student experience is more fragile than what is popularly perceived

The student experience is bursting at the seams with responsibility: university classes, study, work, clubs, societies, volunteering… more. It’s the life that was sold to teens straight out of high school in brochures plastered with smiling faces, and it may be their downfall according to a recent student study*.

When entering the terms ‘university students’ into a search engine, the image results tend to portray clusters of young people: books, bags or even globes in hand, faces aglow with zeal. An examination via survey of a small, convenience sample of students reveals that this perception is paper-thin.

Beneath the mid-shots and the buzz-words, exist a cohort of young people grinding to get through their dailies. A majority of survey respondents identified that they have very little spare time in their schedules. A large portion of those who identified this way also expressed that they feel too exhausted and overwhelmed to make effective use of this precious time.

This may seem typical to the average adult. Unfortunately for university students, when our lives lack ‘wiggle room’ we are unable to form critical redundancies which would otherwise be key in these formative years. Consequently, students are unprepared and unsupported against an unexpected shock to their life. 

*(Griffith University n.d.), **(University of Wollongong n.d.), ***(Healy & Pekarek 2017), ****(Reynolds et al. 2017).

Approximately eighty-four per cent of respondents said their overall wellbeing would improve if they had more opportunities to work on it. Worryingly, the same respondents specified that they are currently not able to to form adequate mental health redundancy. The purpose of this redundancy would be to handle significant and unpredicted emotional or mental downturn without compromising or falling behind on pre-existing obligations.

But, if students were afforded more time to do this, what form would these redundancies take? What does the act of making these redundancies look like? 

In short, multiple respondents stated that they would use the time to stress less. Some elaborated that they would focus on rest and mental recovery, alluding to the emergent notion of self-care. When a student can actively form a reservoir of strong mental health as a redundancy to fall back on, they are less likely to experience burnout when faced with sudden trauma (Bressi & Vaden 2017).

Another identified redundancy that is significantly deficient in the student experience is time itself. Students may encounter a shock that does not only require mental space but also physical time to deal with. Responses indicate that many students are uncertain they have the time to handle the situation without serious compromise in other aspects of their life.

For example, one student recently had their life uprooted by an interstate move made on short notice. They say they are now struggling to catch up with university work because they simply do not have the time amongst all the other tasks they must also complete.

A different student highlighted that even though the university has academic consideration policies, and that workplaces have options for leave of absence, these processes also require a time dedication that some may not have. These alternatives also come at the expense of days or weeks worth of productivity and income lost that will be difficult to recover.

The final element in this honest portrait of the true university experience is financial redundancy. Despite common perceptions of the impoverished university student being widely accepted fact, a large portion of survey respondents indicated that they have adequate financial redundancy whether by savings or by income stability. A surprising fifty-seven per cent of respondents have not even had to dip into their monetary back-ups since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic.

In light of these positive figures, many respondents felt further steps could be taken to ensure more students have secure financial redundancies in place. A very popular idea was a university-run class to improve personal financial literacy with a focus on saving and investing. Such a class may potentially reinforce a student’s ability to remain financially afloat and independent when hit with an unplanned shock, for example not getting their rental bond back.

However, a couple of respondents highlighted that healthy personal finances should remain just that—personal. They believe that university already offers adequate financial support to its students, and that anything more is the responsibility of the student.

Though non-representative, the study on redundancy in the student lifestyle reveals key insights for students, for universities and for other external stakeholders. University students will find value in a re-examination of their weekly schedule to implement redundancy-building behaviours. Simply adding more free time to their schedule or implementing self-care activities is a worthy investment in an unexpected future.

For universities and other external stakeholders, flexibility will always be key when interacting with students. Ruling with an iron-fist when scheduling and assigning responsibilities is a one-size-fits-all path of destruction for any student. It is important to avoid being fooled by preconceptions about the joviality of the student lifestyle and instead engage with empathy and understanding.

*This opinion article is based on a student study, conducted by myself, which examined a small sample of students from my BCM212 class, for which the article is a set assessment. DO NOT cite this source as fact; it is simply an experiment in research and writing skills.