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 Nine out of ten students leave higher education unequipped for life

Nick Bennett
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A nationwide survey of current students also discovered 57 percent do not think their universities are doing enough to prepare their students. Almost half (48 percent) said they felt worried about their future employment because they lack self-confidence. Contributor Nick Bennett, CEO and Co-Founder – Fika

Some 42 percent questioned whether academia is relevant in the real world, 38 percent believe university only offers a sheltered view of life, and more than a quarter (26 percent) said they worry their degree hasn’t prepared them adequately for the world of work.

The study, by students’ emotional fitness app Fika, also found that a fifth of university students think employers are no longer looking solely for purely academic qualifications, with many now valuing “soft skills” such as leadership, communication skills, flexibility and work ethic over traditional qualifications.

The number one pressure on students today is the worry they won’t get a job, a concern for almost half (49 percent) of students. A further 47 percent worry about the debt they’re going to leave with, 46 percent are anxious because of uncertainty about what the future holds, 36 percent suspect university might have been a waste of money and 27 percent worry they should have just gone straight to work.

Fika also surveyed UK employers, who confirmed students’ concerns: more than a third (38 percent) of employers felt that soft skills are the most important thing graduates can bring to a job, while just 12 percent thought academic results matter more.

Employers said communication skills are the number one thing they look for in a potential employee (65 percent). They ranked teamwork second (59 percent), self-motivation third (58 percent) and problem-solving fourth (54 percent). 

Academic results came last out of a list of 19 attributes, with only 27 percent selecting these as important. Worryingly, 87 percent of employers said new graduates often lack the wider skills they need to thrive at work, with 37 percent adding they lack focus and self-motivation, 35 percent feeling they have little confidence, and 34 percent believing they don’t have any accountability.

Three quarters (72 percent) of employers think these wider social skills should be taught at school level and a further fifth (21 percent) said universities should equip students in this way. A staggering 99 percent thought that offering lessons in these soft skills at school or university would vastly improve their chances of employment, and 95 percent said they would like to see young people developing these skills.

Nick Bennett, CEO and Co-Founder of Fika, said: “There is a clear gap in our education system, which is costing students dearly, in terms of their mental health, employability and life skills. Together with our university partners, Fika will be using technology and science to help increase access to emotional education within university and school life – helping students to deal with the pressures of the academic-led curriculum and safeguarding the future mental health of our young people.”

Sir Anthony Seldon, educationalist, historian and Vice Chancellor of the University of Buckingham, said: “Fika’s findings are cause for grave concern. The pressure within the academic system to demonstrate quantifiable results, rather than turning out well-rounded, properly equipped graduates, is creating an anxious, ill-equipped and emotionally fragile generation of workers. As a sector, we must pay heed to these findings and come together to find and implement solutions. If we do nothing, the impact could be devastating, on an individual level and on a broader socio-economic level.”

The research, of 1,500 students and 100 employers of graduates, also found that 28 percent of students felt the pressure of their course had led to them feeling isolated and under pressure. According to the data, a quarter have never received any education in soft skills in either school or university, and 97 percent of them felt it would have been helpful to them if they had.

More than half (55 percent) said they struggle with self-confidence, 36 percent don’t know how to manage their time, a third (32 percent) find it hard to focus and the same number don’t know how to self-motivate.

Willem Kuyken, Professor of Mindfulness and Psychological Science at the University of Oxford, said: “Fika’s study makes for sobering reading, laying bare an education system where students, employers and educators all raise issues that urgently need to be addressed.  Rather than parking the ambulance at the bottom of the cliff, we must address the problem at its roots. The Higher Education sector has a duty to redesign its offering to bring emotional and social education to its heart, making these as foundational to the university experience as academic education. Only then will we achieve the outcome we’re looking for: human flourishing.”

Some 96 percent of UK students surveyed said universities should offer ‘emotional education’ on the curriculum to help reverse the student mental health crisis, according to Fika’s research. Almost two thirds (65 percent) of students said receiving emotional education modules at university would help protect them from encountering mental health problems. More than half (52 percent) said it would help them better understand how to take care of themselves and each other.

69 percent of students felt the emotional support available at their university was inadequate, with more than a third (35 percent) saying waiting lists for counselling and mental health support were too long.

More than a fifth (22 percent) said “help is only available when things get tough – there is nothing in place to help me learn, build and maintain a better mindset”. 77 percent of students found the transition into university difficult, according to Fika’s study, with one in five (20 percent) recalling it as “very difficult”. 60 percent said they had received no advice on how to deal with this transition.

The majority of students said they talked to their friends (56 percent) or parents (38 percent) when things got tough, but 36 percent said “I keep my problems to myself”. 26 percent go out drinking with friends to cope, 8 percent share their worries on social media and 7 percent take recreational drugs. 13 percent of students said, “I don’t have a coping strategy”.

Niamh Hutchings, 21, a third-year undergraduate at the University of Westminster, said: “I think universities are starting to catch on to the fact that they need to do more to help with mental health education. It would definitely help – not just with completing the course successfully, but also going off afterwards into the real world – getting jobs and sorting our lives out. Emotional education also sounds like it would help with understanding mental health problems – how to handle and control them, how to deal with things in a healthy way.”

Nadine Pinnock, a 22-year-old student who dropped out of Cardiff University last year following a battle with depression, said: “University can be a really difficult time, especially if you already suffer with mental health problems. I suffered a lot with depression and anxiety throughout my entire university experience. Emotional education, like the type Fika offers, could really help students stay on top of their mental health: it’s not a cure, but it would give people the tools they need to cope.”

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