The New Realists

Unite Students Insight Report 2019

Unite Students worked with HEPI and YouthSight to carry out both qualitative and quantitative research into applicants and students at university. Our aim was to investigate young people’s transition to university, their expectations and their experiences in the first year, looking at both academic and non-academic aspects.

Download the full report

To understand what students truly value from their time at university, and how they expect to navigate it, we needed to see the world through their eyes. This is why we have given students a prominent place within the report, both through direct quotes from the qualitative research stage, and with audio conversations of students responding to some of the key findings we have highlighted below.

For those who wish to explore the data themselves, we have made a Tableau of the full data set available at the bottom of this page. The data presented here is a summary of key highlights and the full report and methodology can also be downloaded at the bottom of this page.


Future stability is a dominant motivator for current and prospective students within the context of a world that is perceived as uncertain and risky. As such, an undergraduate degree is perceived as a period of transition between a stable past and a hoped-for stable future.

When it comes to their future, applicants and students are more interested in job satisfaction and financial stability than being wealthy or senior in their career.

They believe that life will be more difficult and the world more risky than it was for their parents, and the majority think that going to university is the only way to get the life they want.

Students talked to us about being “independent but not adults”. Higher education can offer a safe place for challenge and experimentation, helping students to develop the adaptability and resilience to thrive in an uncertain world.


The current generation of applicants and students is the most diverse ever, in terms not only of traditional demographics but individual identity. They need a broad, inclusive and flexible higher education experience that reflects this and meets their needs.

Because universities work hard to widen participation in higher education, each cohort of students is more diverse than the last. However “getting in” is not the same as “getting on” and students from some minority groups feel as though they are less successful than their peers.

This generation of students is diverse in many ways other ways too - their political views, what they eat and drink, the way they dress and the way they modify their appearance.

A one-size-fits-all offer to this generation of students will almost certainly not be enough.


Student friendships are highly significant to this generation of students and play a practical as well as an emotional role in their lives. Friends and peers are seen by students as fundamental to a successful student experience and play a clear role at specific points on the journey.

Other students and friends are the most accurate source of information about student life according to students themselves, ranking higher than university open days or prospectuses.

Just over a quarter of students feel lonely often or all the time, and those who are lonely are less likely to be happy, satisfied with life or feel that the things they do in their life are worthwhile.

Student friendships have long been an under-recognised aspect of higher education, but they can make or break the student experience.


As in other areas, applicants and students are strongly self determining when it comes to their wellbeing. Far from being ‘snowflakes’, this generation of students demonstrates an unrecognised strength in the face of challenges to their wellbeing, and draw on a broad range of support, including family, peers and wellbeing apps. Applicants and students with a pre-existing mental health condition don’t necessarily see it as a problem, and may view it as part of their (diverse) identity. However, most don’t want to draw on university support or even disclose their condition to their university. There remains an engagement gap with about a quarter of first year students not using university services because of issues around confidence, fear or trust. Peer-led approaches may help to address this gap.

17% of first year students have a mental health condition, rising from 12% in just three years. However, their approach is largely accepting and pragmatic and they are more likely to believe it is “part of who they are” rather than “a problem to solve”. Only 53% of students with a mental health condition have told their university.

Just under a quarter of students have used their university wellbeing, support or mental health service, which usually meets or exceeds their expectations.

However just over a quarter say they haven’t used the service because they didn’t think it could help, they were too anxious or afraid, they didn’t want the university to know or they didn’t think it was for people like them.

There may be a need to remove these barriers to support, especially for more vulnerable students, however the wider data suggests that some students may simply prefer to deal with wellbeing issues with friends, family or on their own.


Freshers’ Week is the traditional way of helping new arrivals to immerse themselves into university life, find their feet and get settled in. However, as currently presented it works better for some groups of students than others. There may still be some way to go to offer a Freshers’ experience that meets the diverse needs of this generation of students, and we find evidence of a social expectation that is not being fully met. University itself is viewed by this generation as a gradual transition into adult life, and in that context we should not imagine that a single, high intensity week is anything like enough to enable new students to adapt.

On average, students think Freshers’ week is ok but it doesn’t always live up to its promise when it comes to socialising. Students were less likely to go to a party in someone’s house or flat, and less likely to share a meal with others than they expected to. They were also less likely to make new friends.

Freshers’ week works better for some groups of students than others.

Traditional approaches to Freshers’ Week may need to adapt to this new and more diverse generation of students.


Predictions of the lecture’s demise are premature. In fact, both applicants and students reported that they prefer face to face forms of learning above digital-only approaches. However, although students rank lectures as the most useful form of learning they are not universally popular, and there is a suggestion in the qualitative research that they actually function as a social as much as a learning opportunity and are valued as such. Ultimately, however, there is no clear consensus on preferred learning approaches but rather a variety of different methods are needed to meet the diverse needs of this cohort.

Today’s diverse student body has a range of preferences when it comes to learning, but they are united in finding face to face rather than digital approaches most useful.

If lectures were to be taken away, other face to face learning is preferred over digital ways of learning.

However, students expect that their university will have good digital resources to support their independent learning, and 44% use apps to help them study.

For those who wish to explore the data themselves, we have made a Tableau of the full data set available.

Download the full report

Download the full methodology