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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.
Professor Richard James, Higher Education Researcher and Pro-Vice Chancellor (Academic). Download transcript
Increased participation and diversity in higher education
Universities are now much larger and students far more diverse than in the past. Compared to 30 or 40 years ago when a relatively small number of young people went to university, today over 1.2 million people are enrolled in higher education in Australia.
- 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
While increased participation and diversity in higher education is a positive development, for some students being part of a complex ‘mass’ education system is de-personalising and isolating.
The costs and value of higher education
Higher education participation has never been as expensive for students as it is today. For many students, the direct and indirect costs of university study are a major source of stress.
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).
- 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).