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An inspirational note to students on the issue of students’ non-engagement in Universities

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I am not a motivational speaker, nor claim to have been inducted into the motivational speaker’s hall of fame. However, my choice to write about this blog stems from some of the challenges being faced by students that I have observed in the last couple of months. This is an inspirational blog for students and not so much about the issues of laziness in studies and so on. The aim here is to try to guide students on how they can fight through some of the challenges they are going through and be better achievers. As an educator, I owe it a duty to myself to offer advice and guidance to my students wherever necessary – in the hope that they can benefit sufficiently from the experiences that university life brings them. Remember my first point, I am not a motivational speaker, and so the recommendations that I present here are not exhaustive but brief and straight to the point.

In this post-pandemic era, several academics have drawn attention to the general lack of engagement of students in their various universities, and some colleagues have written and spoken about this issue on different platforms and forums. Some academics and students, none I know, often conclude and sum up the problem as ‘mere laziness’. While I do not disagree entirely with them in some cases, I wish to reflect on some of my observations with students from different universities. In these dialogues, my aim was to know their views on the general lack of engagement with their studies and to pick their brains on why some students struggle to attend classes. Many issues have been raised, but I will attempt to sum them up into three categories.

Firstly, one of the key issues that some students have raised is the impact of the pandemic and the need to bring back remote learning. Undoubtedly, COVID-19 messed us all up, and I get it. It was a painful period of uncertainty and a period where academic achievements dropped almost to their lowest across many countries. Online collaborate, and other online classes made life really easy for many students to the point where students could turn up to their 9 am online class under their duvet just a few minutes before the start of the class. The obligation to complete workshop reading was minimal because students could easily fake a network connection glitch and sign out when called to answer a question. There was also no obligation (in some cases) to turn on your camera or mic – because the famous phrase ‘my mic isn’t working’ was not too far away. These examples may seem inconsequential, but they help us understand some foundational problems affecting students’ motivation to engage with their studies.

We should also not forget that the need to queue up for trains at 7 am, where you have people breathing down your neck during the expensive peak time or rush hour period to meet a 9 am lecture, was reduced to the lockdown rules. This life has led to what I call the ‘soft life’. The soft life of having things done at your own time, in your bed, and at your own pace. To a large extent, the ‘soft life’ of remote learning has made it really difficult for some students to readjust to real life and to fire up their motivations to engage with their studies. My recommendation is that students start fighting through this soft life because the real-life upon graduation is not particularly soft, and the labour market (as some of you may be aware) is particularly fierce in its competition.

The second issue here is the problem of finance and the current cost-of-living crisis. I will not go into specific details because we are all feeling the heat of the current austerity, but the result of the current cost of living crises, such as the rise in transportation fares, has been raised as one of the reasons why students do not turn up to classes. We all know that the austere situation of price hikes is being experienced by many of us today. As a result, we are witnessing several strike actions across the country. From teachers to train drivers and from hospital workers to bus drivers, hundreds of thousands of workers are calling for changes in their pay schemes, working conditions and so on. Students are also suffering from these crises too, and it becomes even more compounded for students with dependents.

We can all agree that studying under harsh financial conditions can increase anxiety and reduce motivation to engage in university. These, coupled with family commitments and health challenges, are a recipe for discouragement and demoralisation. In managing this problem in academic studies, one of the key recommendations is for students to identify the support services available to them in their various institutions. Get in touch with your lecturers and update them on your predicament. Don’t ‘ghost’ on your PATs; speak to your academic advisers and other services available to you as you deem fit. Keeping your problems to yourself will only intensify anxiety. After all, a problem well stated is a problem half solved.

Another overarching narrative in my dialogue with some students reflects the general feeling of not wanting to go to university because of a lack of belonging to the campus or the course/module. Some students have noted higher confidence levels in peer learning and that their inability to establish a strong relationship with friends on campus or in classrooms has made it difficult for them to engage. When it relates to in-class workshop exercises, minimal students attend class, thus restricting peer learning. I once heard, ‘why do I need to attend when it’s only going to be 3 of us in the class’. Again, very many examples have been raised in my dialogues, but what is important here is for students to recognise some of the benefits of this and to use it to their advantage instead of taking it as a reason not to engage. One example is that such situations can provide a more ‘personable atmosphere’ where you can clarify burning issues relating to the module. It can also help with attention, and it can help build confidence.

Gnerally, non-engagement with studies has some implications for later years. Gone were the days when the probability of getting a job was relatively high upon completing university degree. However, in recent times, the competition in the labour market has become so stiff that those with a 2.1 or 1st-class degree sometimes find it hard to secure a job – particularly where experience is limited. Making informed decisions, being autonomous in your education and taking responsibility for your education will assist in dealing with quite a lot of challenges in later years. Remember the saying, if life throws lemons at you, make lemonade out of it. So keep on striving.

Overall, anxiety, stress and demoralisation reduce work productivity and social functioning. We are in a period where we, as a society, need each other more than ever. People are struggling and going through different crises, and as a people, the least we can do is to be kind to individuals and alley their fears whenever possible and necessary. Kindness here becomes the goal.

I hope you find strength for those going through other issues, such as ill health and other challenges that are beyond their control! Happy Weekend!

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