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This century has brought more opportunities than ever before to participate in higher education. Students also have more choice in terms of courses and modes of participation. While it may seem that there is no better time to be a university student, in many ways, student life is more complex and challenging than in past decades. This increases the psychological stressors that students experience.

Hear from education experts Johanna Wyn and Richard James.

Professor Johanna Wyn, Director of The Youth Research Centre, Melbourne.
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Professor Richard James, Higher Education Researcher and Pro-Vice Chancellor (Academic). Download transcript

Increased participation and diversity in higher education
This means that the student body and student life today are different in several important ways compared with past generations:

  • There are more mature age, international, regional, distance, and ‘first-in-family’ students undertaking university study
  • Contemporary students are more varied in their motivations, academic abilities and preparedness for university study
  • Student expectations of universities and their goals in undertaking university study are more varied
  • Contemporary university students are organising their study around paid work, volunteering or sporting commitments, and an active social life
  • Many students are also juggling family care responsibilities and financial or community obligations.
Participating in a ‘mass’ education system
For students entering university with lower levels of academic readiness or with multiple competing commitments, the stressors associated with the academic demands of a course can feel overwhelming. Many students are spending less time on campus than in past decades, and increases in enrolments and class-sizes mean that some students complete courses without making any friends among their university cohort.
The costs and value of higher education
Added to this is growing uncertainty about the value of a university degree in terms of employment and income-generating outcomes. On its own, earning a degree is no longer enough to secure rewarding employment. As a result many university students feel they need to achieve high grades while also engaging in a range of extra-curricular and voluntary activities to build their resumes and enhance their ‘employability’. The stress of juggling multiple commitments and financial pressures, with no clear idea where university study leads to, are causes of concern for many contemporary students.

Research Snapshot 1.2 The contemporary student experience: stressors and challenges

Engagement and isolation in the first year

  • The most recent national study of the first year experience (FYE) across 8 universities found that many students are not making connections at university. Almost 45% report generally keeping to themselves and less than half (47%) feel like they belong to the university community. Students from low SES and regional backgrounds are more likely to keep to themselves.
  • Almost one in five (19%) students (higher among part time and regional students) are seriously considering deferring or dropping out, with ’emotional health’ being the most frequently cited reason (72%; Baik et al., 2015).

Financial strain

  • A 2012 national study of student finances found that many students experience financial stress. Over 65% reported that their financial situation is often a source of worry for them and over 15% regularly go without food or other necessities because they cannot afford them (Bexley et al., 2013).
  • Findings from the 2014 University Experience Survey (GRA & SRC, 2015) of over 100,000 undergraduate students also found that ‘financial difficulties’ (28%) and the ‘need to do paid work’ (23%) were among the main reasons for students to consider discontinuing their university course.

Uncertainty about employment outcomes

  • Employment prospects after graduation are a cause for concern for many university students. Graduate Careers Australia (2013) report that over a quarter (29%) of bachelor degree graduates are still looking for full-time employment four months after graduation.
  • One in five (21%) students who considered discontinuing their university courses cited ‘career prospects’ as a main reason (GRA & SRC, 2015).