UNIVERSITIES need to ensure they bring their support services to students in need, instead of waiting for pupils to seek help, according to visiting scholar Professor Jacqueline Stevenson.
Professor Stevenson from Sheffield Hallam University in England made the recommendation as part of the annual Brian Smith Public Lecture, which she delivered at the University of Newcastle on Thursday.
Professor Stevenson’s lecture compared original theories about resilience – which suggested inner characteristics and dispositions enabled students to get through adversity – with more recent research, which suggested there were external protective factors that helped students to become resilient.
The external protective factors could include access to family, friends and other social networks, a belief system or religion, hobbies, peer acceptance, stable accommodation and adequate finances.
“I am arguing about the importance of not putting all the responsibility on the individual to have better characteristics, but an interplay between their inner characteristics and outside world to support them,” she said.
“If it’s all about inner characteristics, then why do some students who have endured trauma such as seeking asylum, or had difficult family circumstances and gone into care, [only] struggle when they get to higher education?
“In higher education there is the assumption they are independent people who should be able to cope and survive in what other people would not think is a threatening environment – it’s seen as diverse, inclusive, welcoming. There’s a lack of awareness about how it can be a risky or challenging place for some students.”
Professor Stevenson said universities could follow American Tara Yosso’s suggestions of recognising students cultural wealth, enabling strong relationships between peers and with staff, looking at more inclusive ways of teaching and assessing, allowing students extra time and outlining what future possibilities are available. “It’s also about recognising some students need additional support, but that might be in places where students might find it problematic to go and look for help,” she said. “Sometimes there needs to be a willingness to take these services out to students.”
Professor Stevenson will visit Callaghan College Waratah on Friday and meet with students from a refugee background to discuss resilience and the value of writing a letter to their future selves.
She said she disagreed with activities such as outdoor challenges that aimed to develop “grit”, saying they were a “blunt tool”. She said the activities were usually based on a “macho view”; could stigmatise students; and did not recognise students may already be resilient.