How coaching can help universities mitigate the impacts of COVID on their underrepresented students

This year has seen huge and unprecedented challenges for the majority of individuals across the world who have had to respond to measures and changes introduced to tackle the coronavirus. Social distancing and lockdown in particular have resulted in the ceasing or reduction of the everyday activities and social situations we are used to, and that help us maintain a sense of wellbeing.

In the UK, there have already been numerous reports detailing the impact that lockdown and social distancing measures have had on our university students. Students have had to immediately adapt to online learning and methods of examination; they may have lost part-time jobs, hours at work or not been paid for work that they have fulfilled; and many have moved away from their university accommodation and back in with their parents during this time. These have been common outcomes for the majority of students, but for those students from underrepresented backgrounds it is clear that Covid-19 has impacted them significantly more than their advantaged peers, which we will explore in more detail below.

Ensuring that underrepresented students have access to quality and high-intensity support has always been of great importance. Bearing in mind the ways in which covid-19 has negatively impacted underrepresented students, and the effect this may have on their mental health, this type of support is likely to be in greater demand this coming academic year, with the Office for Students (OfS) advising universities that “all students are likely to require increased pastoral support and resources to support their wellbeing”.

At Inclusive Futures, we really know the ways in which coaching can positively impact the mental health of students who feel under pressure, for myriad reasons. We wanted to share some ways in which coaching can help universities manage some key challenges

likely to be affecting their underrepresented students in 2020/21.

Coaching to help students deal with worries about their future

We’ve seen record numbers of underrepresented students applying for university this year, with many prospective students relying on the stability of at least three years of education as a more favourable position to be in than facing the prospect job hunting in “the worst recession since the Great Depression”.

However, for current second and third year students there is a very real worry present as to what awaits them when they graduate. Students from underrepresented groups already face more difficulties accessing work placements than their more advantaged peers. But with more than a quarter of UK businesses reporting that they “are scaling back graduate recruitment leading to fears of a ‘lost generation’ with limited options”, it is clear that worries about the future will be at the forefront of many students’ minds. Recently, the National Union of Students (NUS) has reported that 81% of students were concerned with their job prospects, and 71% were worried about the impact the pandemic will have on their employability.

Coaching is an effective way to facilitate students in reframing and reviewing goals and outcomes that they may have already set themselves - something that many students may need to consider doing if their planned graduate path has been impacted by measures relating to COVID-19. At Inclusive Futures, our coaching approach helps students to generate and connect with a number of ‘future possible selves’, and to devise a clear roadmap to become them.

These possible selves may not have existed pre-Covid, and it is the role of the coach to help the student identify possibilities that they may not realise were available to them. Targeted questions that allow students the space to think about their ideal future regardless of their current scenario are vital in helping to identify a wide range of possibilities that a student would have unlikely reached themselves. Working with a coach, the student can then begin to elaborate on and connect with these scenarios. This positive and high-level thinking can then be used to inspire different paths and approaches, helping a student to refocus their aims and ambitions in a way that is still inspiring and that they feel deeply connected to.

As well as this, one of the key elements of coaching is to help individuals generate numerous, unthought of ‘options’ for ways in which they can move towards their ideal outcome, or future. Option generation is a simple, fun and effective way to demonstrate to students that they are able to control far more than they might initially have thought. As coaches, we do give our story, share our opinions, nor give advice on how we or others have overcome obstacles or achieved outcomes. Great coaching questions ensure the student generates all solutions and actions for themselves, increasing confidence in their own abilities and increasing their drive to action the things that they have realised.

Coaching to help students adjust to the ‘new normal’

For students at a greater risk of disengaging from their studies due to changes in course structure or learning environments, coaching can help with readjustment and re-engagement. As highlighted in the recent review of evidence of the impact of interventions for widening access to HE by TASO and the Education Policy Institute, coaching interventions have been proven to be successful in increasing confidence, self-efficacy and achieving higher rates of HE engagement. Coaching heightens a students’ awareness of why they have chosen to pursue a certain goal, decision or path for themselves. Helping an individual re-connect to their reasons for choosing higher education can help them to adapt to the new normal more readily. With a lack of clarity over what the new academic year may hold for them, some students may be less willing to engage in non-traditional teaching methods. Ensuring that these students are really connected to their reasons for remaining in education can boost their readiness to engage in their studies and achieve the outcome that they want for themselves.

Coaching can also be an important tool to help raise a students’ awareness of what resources may be available to them at their universities. If a student identifies something that they’d like to find out more about in a coaching session, their coach can signpost them to the services or resources that already exist within their education setting. Providers like the University of York, for example, have recently boosted their bursaries for care experienced and estranged graduates this yearas part of their Access and Outreach support for underrepresented students. For some students that wouldn’t think to check in or look at the support offered by their education provider, signposting within an existing intervention can make a huge difference.

Coaching to help close the divide between underrepresented students and their more advantaged peers

The Office for Students (OfS) has recently reported that during lockdown some disabled students have not been able to receive the study support they require or face extra difficulty in accessing learning in a format that works . OfS has acknowledged that:

“[t]he assistance some students receive from note-takers and sign-language interpreters [...] may be less readily available. Hearing or visually impaired students may struggle to access lectures and webinars as teaching and learning move online. Some students may be self-isolating because of underlying health conditions and be unsure how to access the support they need.”

The Guardian has also reported that there is a clear digital divide between students from underrepresented groups and their more advantaged peers, with students or potential students from working class backgrounds being twice as likely to have insufficient access to the internet, learning devices or study space at home.

Applying a coaching approach to conversations with underrepresented or disadvantaged students ensures that these groups have a say in what extra support could be provided to them and their peers. Giving these students the space to share their thoughts, feelings and suggestions can help them feel empowered that their perspective and suggestions are listened to, instead of decisions being made on behalf of them.

At Inclusive Futures, our coaching approach ensures that feedback from underrepresented students is anonymously shared with their universities via a tailored evaluation report. We encourage and facilitate student/ university co-creation sessions in order to shape the support that is provided for underrepresented students going forward, as there is no ‘one size fits all’ approach for universities.

Get in touch

These past few months have been turbulent for everyone, and particularly for those students that have missed out on their education and who may not have the support networks that their more advantaged peers have access to. Providing an extra form of support to students is more important now than ever. Our programmes help HE providers to meet the outcomes you have committed to in your Access and Participation Plans, providing additional support to those that will benefit the most.

Please get in touch for a chat about how coaching could compliment your current access and participation activities. Contact Rose Sellman-Leava, or Jess Woodsford,

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