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Employability in the curriculum – the Why and How of real-world learning

This ‘Employability in the curriculum’ blog series is brought to you by the Faculty Employability Team at the Careers Service. These blogs are designed to give you practical advice and ideas to get started with enhancing how your curriculum prepares students for their future success. 

‘Real-world’, or ‘authentic’ learning are terms you are probably familiar with by now. This approach is a key feature of the curriculum framework, and one on which BILT have already shared a lot of great advice (if you haven’t already, check out their blog post on creating authentic online teaching and learning).   

If, like us, you’ve taken part in the Digital Design course you will have enjoyed finding out about how authentic approaches can transform student learning and their experience of assessment. We were inspired – so are now delving into this topic with an employability lens too.  

Real-world learning: why does it matter? 

Opportunities to apply learning to real-world contexts and challenges help to prepare students for life and work beyond university. This might seem to be stating the obvious – most people recognise the link. But to fully appreciate the potential impact of real-world learning, it’s worth reflecting on some of the benefits for students:  

  • They become agents in their own learning – thereby developing the initiative and autonomy they need to succeed professionally   
  • They develop enterprising, questioning, innovative mindsets – essential for organisations of all sizes and sectors to thrive  
  • They develop a broader range of other highly valuable skills and attributes – such as project management, collaborative working and professionalism 
  • They gain insight into, and experience of, the world of work – helping to inform their choices about where they go next  

Real-world and online learning – a contradiction?    

The idea of real-world learning in the curriculum may sound appealing. But how possible is it in the current context? Surely applying learning to real challenges requires students to actually go out into the ‘real world’? 

Well, hopefully you can see that many of the suggestions and examples we include below are those that could be delivered remotely. Of course, there are significant challenges for placements, lab work, or other applied teaching and learning methods which ordinarily require a physical presence – but in many cases, it’s still possible to deliver a meaningful and engaging remote real-world learning or assessment experience. And in doing so, students develop a skillset that will equip them for the reality of work after university.  Look out for our next blog post for more on this!   

Real-world learning: how can you incorporate into your unit or programme 

There are a range of ways to introduce real-world learning into your curriculum – from light-touch approaches like using case studies through to embedding work experience or placement opportunities.  

We’ve included some examples below, which are grouped for ease into three categories. It’s impossible to do this neatly and there is some overlap – but hopefully gives an idea of the range of approaches you could choose…  

Professional tasks  Briefings for policy makers or Think Tanks    
Reports for research bodies  
Blogs/vlogs or podcasts 
Customer / patient information leaflets  
Articles or videos for the media  
Business ideas or plans  
Digital portfolios 
Creating an exhibit or curating a museum  
In tray/e-tray exercises under time constraint 
Applying subject knowledge and methods  Labs and workshops  
Research projects and reports  
Mini-academic conferences  
Poster or panel presentations  
Data collection/surveying, analysis, interpretation  
Using real source material  
Real-world contexts and challenges  Examples or illustrative case studies  
Live case study problems or consultancy briefs 
Engaged Learning projects  
Applied dissertations – research with or for external organisations  
Virtual shadowing or insight using video platforms  
Work placements or experience in industry  
Developing a business idea to meet needs of a society / community / industry challenge  
Real-world learning practice examples

If you’d like to explore further, take a look at this paper on authentic learning practices or this one on alternatives to exams.  

Real world learning at Bristol  

There are plenty of examples of real-world learning taking place in programmes across the University. We have gathered a small selection below to give you of an idea of what it can look like in practice.  

Take a look at the teaching case studies on the BILT website for some further examples. You can also see approaches used in other institutions in JISC’s case studies on using technology for embedding employability.  

Your examples and feedback – we want to hear from you!  

We would love to hear about any work you’ve done to develop real-world learning in your unit or programme – please share your examples in the comments below.  

Do also let us know how you are finding the blog series so far or any suggestions for topics that would be useful for us to cover. Comment below or get in touch at 

photo of bristol with colourful houses
BILT Briefings, News

BILT Friday Briefing Issue 39


New briefing format

You will notice that the briefing is now in a new format and platform. This is because Amy Palmer (Digital Resources Officer) is now on maternity leave. We wish Amy well for the coming months and hope you will enjoy the new format on WordPress. If you have any enquiries that would normally be directed to Amy, please contact the BILT mailbox – in the first instance.

Express your interest in the asynchronous August run of Digital Design

Please fill in this form if you are interested in taking the Digital Design course in August and we will keep you updated with any details that become available. Staff who have already taken earlier runs of the course are welcome to take this as a refresher, if you wish. Find out more about the course by reading this blog post.

FUTURES2020 – Call for researchers

Researchers, research teams and postgraduate research students are invited to take part in FUTURES2020, a festival of discovery in Bristol, Bath, Exeter, and Plymouth celebrating European Researchers’ Night (27-28 November). Funded by the EU Commission, this is the largest showcase of cutting-edge research across the region with over 300 researchers participating in a range of public events. To find out more see the website or email Diane Thorne or Joel Morley at Closing date for submissions – Friday 31 July.


‘Tales from the Digital Classroom’ Conference – recordings and materials

We were delighted to welcome over 150 staff to our first virtual conference ‘Tales from the Digital Classroom’ which shared stories and experiences of online – teaching, tools and techniques. If you were unable to attend the conference, or wish to refresh your memory, all session recordings and supporting materials from the day can be viewed on the Blackboard BILT site.

Employability in the curriculum series

Blog series from the Faculty Employability Team in the Careers Service. The first blog asks why does employability matter, the second explores what’s already in your curriculum and the third focuses on helping students to identify employability within the curriculum. Feedback is welcome to help the Team develop their advice and guidance further – comments can be posted at the end of each blog post.

Addressing disparities and the shadow pandemic

Blog by BILT Lecturer Aisling (Ash) Tierney on how COVID-19 is causing societal disparities that adversely affect BAME staff and students, read the post here.

The social determinants of well-being: A holistic approach to supporting students capacity to flourish in Higher Education

Blog by Student Fellow Owen Barlow on disparities in wellbeing among young people in Higher Education, read the post here.


Various DEO events

Please visit our Events page for full listings of forthcoming events.


If there is anything you would like to share via this briefing, please get in touch with the BILT Team at


Evaluating your teaching practice

Evaluation isn’t one thing to everyone. It takes place at different points in the curriculum and can be valued in many ways.  In this blog I provide an overview of good practice for evaluating your teaching and useful resources to support your practice. I then consider potential issues that occur in the evaluation process that can bias student feedback and negatively impact staff. 

What does evaluation look like to most of us?  

The reasons for monitoring and measuring our curriculum are common-sense: to ensure that our degrees live up to the high standards expected of the sector, and to ensure that students get the best education possible. How we do this depends on the nature of what and how we teach. You might think of end of unit evaluation feedback forms, annual programme reviews, or external audits for quality assurance, but they are not the only places you can use evaluation effectively. 

Evaluation can review: 

  • Individual units and/or whole programmes 
  • Teaching delivery styles and engagement
  • Student contribution and success 
  • Digital resources such as those hosted on BlackBoard and Re/Play 
  • Pedagogic approaches 
  • Course content 
  • And many more criteria! 

Here, multiple perspectives are invited into the conversation, most commonly from the students that we teach. We can extend evaluation to the experiences of those who contribute to our courses, such as postgraduate teaching assistants and professional services. Additionally, staff may wish to use personal reflective approaches to review their lived experience of teaching (this surfaces actively through the CREATE Scheme). 

When we try a new teaching approach there is an expectation that we will evaluate the success of the new approach used. It also makes sense to continue the evaluation year on year to ensure that the approach continues to work well, especially if there is change of teaching staff or other circumstance such as the impact of Covid-19. Core guidance recommends that we embed evaluation at multiple points, not just at the end of a term or a year. 

What are the benefits of evaluation? 

Depending on the questions you ask, and how you act upon the answers, evaluation can benefit you in many ways: 

  • Evidences success (which can also support staff progression)
  • Evidences how learning outcomes are met
  • Determines how students have improved skills and competencies
  • Identifies areas for updates and improvements
  • Ensures that the student voice is heard
  • Checks our assumptions and biases as to how effective our teaching is
  • Complements external audits and student surveys

Good principles for evaluation 


Students need to feel that they can be honest when responding to feedback requests. Articulating how data is collected anonymously promotes authentic responses. 

Good design 

Asking the right questions gets the best data. Templates are available to support the design of feedback sheets (see University Policy for unit evaluationteaching assistant feedback template; and Dunworth & Sanchez 2016) It can be useful to use the same questions year on year to validate the reliability of the data (see Alderman, Towers & Bannah 2012). 


Student feedback should always be requested during timetabled time. Often, too little time is set aside, and this impacts the level of detail and the quality of feedback. Rushed responses are never going to be as useful as well considered ones for lenthy feedback forms. Given our increased use of digital resources, you can do quick “check ins” with your students as part of live sessions using tools like the polling facility in Collaborate. If you run a focus group, facilitation is key. To support student confidence, you might ask an external colleague to run this for you (ask BiLT team to help too!).  


Once you have compiled the evaluation data, why not share a summary version with the students who contributed? You can even tell them how you will address concerns. This can support students seeing the value in providing good feedback in the future and makes them feel listened to and respected. 

Full circle 

How will you use this data? How will it inform your future teaching choices? The evaluation process doesn’t end with looking at feedback, it needs to inform changes, updates and adaptations in your teaching as part of the cycle of continuous improvement. 

Self-care and support 

Feedback can make us feel elated, frustrated or crestfallen. Sometimes it’s hard to hear, especially if it’s personally directed at the choices we have made in our teaching. It’s important to recognise that sometimes feedback can be ill-considered and, at times, even cruel. The emotional impact of feedback can send us reeling and dent our confidence.

Evidence demonstrates that female members of staff are evaluated more harshly than their male counterparts (Flaherty 2018). Recent research in Sweden identifies how negative feedback is more common for early career teachers (Flodén 2017). Gender, racial and cultural bias are real issues and can manifest differently depending on the demographics of your student cohorts (see Fan et al 2019).

What can you do to challenge and alleviate these issues? 

Colleagues new to teaching should be actively supported by their School to build their confidence and resilience. Where gender, race, sexual identity, cultural bias, or any other discriminatory feedback is received, care should be taken by senior members of staff to support colleagues on the receiving end including how this can be psychologically distressing. The School should also exercise caution that it does not further compound the issue by penalising the affected staff (e.g. regarding progression, contract continuation or promotion). Line managers, heads of teaching and heads of school can actively offer empathetic support in these situations and protect staff from unwarranted penalties.  

Dr Aisling (Ash) Tierney –  

Further resources

  • Our University Policy for unit evaluation provides guidance on how to implement evaluation at unit level, from its purpose  to frequency and operational principles. The appendixes to this document provide sample templates for how to structure a unit evaluation form. 
  • Evaluation and benchmarking of the Biochemistry MSci Research Training unit.
  • Quality Assurance Agency advice and guidance on monitoring and evaluating.

Employability in the Curriculum – helping students to recognise it

This ‘Employability in the curriculum’ blog series is brought to you by the Faculty Employability Team at the Careers Service. These blogs are designed to give you practical advice and ideas to get started with enhancing how your curriculum prepares students for their future success.

In our last blog we explored how you can surface and enhance employability in your units or programme. Now we move our focus to the reason we’re all here, our students.

While it’s one thing for you to be able to recognise how you are preparing students for their futures, it’s another for them to recognise and articulate this themselves. Self-awareness is a skill in its own right. While for some students reflecting on their skills and thinking ahead will come naturally, others need more help and encouragement. Students recognising their employability will in turn enable them to articulate it to others – including future employers.

As an aside, you may have spotted that the new Graduate Outcomes survey asks graduates whether they feel that they’re using what they learned during their studies in their current role. While you may understand where and how your unit or programme prepares students for their professional life, this question emphasises how important it is for them to be able to make the link as well. (For more information about the Graduate Outcomes survey and the recently published results have a look at this SharePoint site.)

Making skills, knowledge and attributes explicit to students is therefore the next piece in the puzzle – and our focus for today.

How can you make employability explicit for students?

Ideally, this is about facilitating skills recognition and development of self-awareness authentically through your own units or programmes. It isn’t about spoon feeding students, but where possible interweaving these elements into your learning outcomes, learning activities, assessments, and opportunities for real-world application.

So what does this look like in practice? Here are some practical ideas:

Framing your unit and learning outcomes

  • Refer to skills in your programme or unit learning outcomes – either in the language of the learning outcomes themselves, or by adding in a short accompanying narrative on their employability links and benefits. You can use the Bristol Skills Framework to identify the skills your students might be developing (see our previous blog post for more information on this).
  • When introducing the unit, clearly outline the skills and attributes students will develop – including how they will do this. This will help them to put the skills in context and see their relevance. You can embed this in an introductory session, short video, Blackboard post, or within your unit handbook.
  • Provide opportunity at the end of the unit for students to identify and reflect on the skills they have used (see more below).

Through your learning and assessment activities

  • Explain to students the different skills and attributes they will need to complete a task or activity well. For example, in a group discussion highlight what effective communication and collaborative working looks like.
  • Explain to students how different assessments are developing different skills and attributes and what they need to demonstrate to perform well. For example, explain to students the applicability of the critical thinking and written communication skills they develop (amongst others) when writing essays.
  • Consider including skills and attributes as part of your feedback on tasks and assessments. This will help students to see the importance of this aspect of their learning, and reflect on their own development.
  • Encourage and facilitate student reflection on their skills development, providing opportunities for them to do this whether individually or with others, or even as part of their assessment. Watch out for a blog later in the series which will focus on ways to do this.

References to real-world application

  • Show students where and how the skills and subject knowledge they’re using could be applied professionally – e.g. through an example, case study, or even inviting an external speaker to share the skills they use in their role.
  • Explain – and where possible provides examples of – where the skills students are developing are those which employers are looking for. This could be in specific professions or sectors linked to an area of study, or more generally – for example, the World Economic Forum has predicted which skills will be in demand in 2030.
  • Suggest ways that students can further develop their skills and subject interests outside of their studies – e.g. through relevant work experience or volunteering. Encourage them to look at the range of options available on the University’s very own skills development hub, myopportunities.

Now we’ve shared a few of our ideas, we would love to hear what you think. Would any of these methods work for your unit or programme? Do you have any other ideas?  Share your feedback to help us develop our advice and guidance for academic staff in the coming months. Get in touch with Ellen (Faculty Employability Manager) at

Our next posts will look at different ways you can provide opportunities for real world learning in your curriculum.


Employability in your curriculum – what’s already there?

This ‘Employability in the curriculum’ blog series is brought to you by the Faculty Employability Team at the Careers Service. These blogs are designed to give you practical advice and ideas to get started with enhancing how your curriculum prepares students for their future success.

In our first blog post in this ‘Employability in the Curriculum’ series, we introduced you to the concept of employability in the curriculum and why it especially matters now. If you missed it, take a minute to read here.

Without any further ado, the rest of the blog posts in this series are designed to help you get stuck into the matter at hand – i.e. practical tips on how to maximise the potential of your unit or programme to help students in their future success.

Today’s blog is all about recognising how you are already developing employability, and encouraging you to think about ways this could be enhanced.

1. Recognising where you are already developing employability

Enhancing employability is often about surfacing what’s already there. Once you’re clear on how your course content and methods help to prepare students for their future lives after university, you can help to make this value explicit for them.

A good starting point is thinking about where you want students to be at the end of your unit or programme. What types of learners and future graduates are you encouraging? This can be helpful in identifying the skills, knowledge and attributes your curriculum is developing.

You can also break this down to think specifically about your:

  • Content: Where do the topics covered connect to the real world? What elements of the knowledge gained could students apply beyond their academic studies?
  • Tasks and assessment: What skills and attributes do your activities and assessments develop? How will these equip students for life and work after university?

Identifying the knowledge that you are imparting may be straightforward; picking out skills and attributes can feel a little trickier. However, the following can help:

  • QAA Subject Benchmark Statements – outline the skills, knowledge and attributes reasonably expected of graduates in a subject – i.e. what employers are looking for.
  • The Bristol Skills Framework – outlines the key skills and attributes students should be developing at Bristol.
  • Your unit or programme ILOs – these may not explicitly mention skills, but can be a helpful reminder of the skills and attributes you set out to develop. E.g. from the learning outcome ‘Construct a reasoned argument about a poet(s) or poem(s) supported by appropriate use of evidence and analysis, and close attention to form and technique’, you could pick out the following skills: written communication for different audiences, analytical skills, and attention to detail.

2. Enhancing employability in your unit or programme

Having reflected on where and how your curriculum already helps students to develop skills, knowledge, and attributes, how can you enhance what you’re already doing? Here are some suggestions:

Use a range of teaching and assessment methods

The teaching and assessment methods you choose will impact the skills and attributes your students develop. For example, providing opportunities for students to work together, problem solve and actively engage with their learning are all approaches that enhance employability skills. Using a range of different methods is also important, to ensure that a variety of student learners are catered for. Of course it’s not possible, nor desirable, for an individual unit to meaningfully cover all skills – but we can reasonably expect students to have the opportunity to develop a rounded skill set across their entire programme.

As you’d expect, our friends in BILT have a lot of resources to help you with teaching and assessment methods to enhance students’ skills:

  • Active Learning Cookbook – tips on integrating more active and collaborative learning into teaching, which allows students to engage employability skills such as problem solving, analysis, synthesis, communication and interpersonal.
  • Embedding Innovation and Enterprise – key points on integrating a variety of skills associated with innovation and enterprise into your teaching.
  • Problem Based Learning – a student-centred approach to learning that supports the development of creativity and complex problem-solving.
  • Group Work – advice for integrating or enhancing group work within your curriculum.
  • Dissertation Alternatives – these can offer opportunities for employability skills development.
  • Blended learning case studies – examples of how different schools are delivering engaging blended teaching and assessment.

For ideas on innovation around assessment methods, you may find Advance HE’s Assessment Game useful.

The good news is that it’s likely you will already be thinking about some of these in other contexts, which brings us nicely to our core message – that employability can be seen as an added benefit to work you’re already doing to develop an engaging and challenging learning experience.

Support students to recognise their skills

It’s one thing for you to recognise how your unit or programme develops your students – it’s another to give your students the language to articulate it. To ensure that students recognise how their studies are helping to prepare them for their future success, we need to help them to make this link. Our upcoming blog post on helping students to recognise and articulate their value will give advice on this.

Provide opportunities for real-world learning

Real-world learning methods are another fantastic way to integrate skills development in the curriculum. Watch out for our upcoming blog posts on real-world learning and Engaged learning for ideas and advice on this, as well as some examples of good practice already taking place at Bristol.

Help students make the link with their future

To encourage students to make the most of opportunities to explore and develop during their time at university, we need to support them to make connections between what they are learning and experiencing now, and where they want to be in the future. We’ll be saying more on this later in the series!

We would love to hear from you. How are you enhancing employability through your units or programmes? What else do you need advice or inspiration on in order to do this?

Share your feedback to help us develop our advice and guidance in the coming months. Get in touch with Ellen (Faculty Employability Manager) at


Employability in the curriculum – why does it matter?

This ‘Employability in the curriculum’ blog series is brought to you by the Faculty Employability Team at the Careers Service. These blogs are designed to give you practical advice and ideas to get started with enhancing how your curriculum prepares students for their future success.

Many of us in the Careers Service have been participating in BILT’s fantastic Digital Design course over the past few weeks – and we’ve been inspired by all the innovative ideas and practice being developed across the University. You may wonder what that has to do with employability.

Well, we wanted to take this opportunity to start a conversation about the impact of the transformation of teaching and assessment on not only students’ current academic experience, but on their future life after university too. This is the first in a series of short blogs sharing practical advice, ideas, and inspiration to think about how you can realise and enhance this impact through your practice.

To kick things off, we thought we’d share our thoughts on what ‘employability’ is, why it matters, and why we think it has everything to do with the curriculum.

What is ‘employability’?

‘Employability’ as a term can be confusing, with various definitions in different contexts. It’s also not always a popular guest in conversations around the curriculum, sometimes bringing a perceived threat of making education transactional, or detracting from research-led, rich academic teaching.

But this doesn’t have to be the case. At the Careers Service we define employability simply as the skills, knowledge and attributes which equip students for life and work after university. Which makes our role essentially to help students succeed in their lives beyond their studies – a holistic approach to employability, which is also integral in our university’s vision for education. The engaging, innovative and challenging curriculum of the curriculum framework is one which prepares students to take their next steps.

And why are we talking about it now?

This is more important now than ever – current students will be entering a challenging graduate labour market, with fewer opportunities to gain work experience during their studies. Realising and enhancing the potential of the curriculum therefore becomes even more crucial to their future success. Whatever your feelings towards the term ‘employability’ itself, we can all agree that students’ academic experience should help them to get to where they want to be in the future.

So, what does this mean for the curriculum?

The Careers Service aspiration is that, through their academic studies, every student has the opportunity to:

  • Develop, recognise, and articulate their skills, knowledge, and attributes.
  • Apply their learning to real world contexts and gain insight into the world of work. E.g., through Engaged Learning , other authentic learning or work experience.
  • Connect these two things to the demands of and opportunities in the labour market and effectively plan their next steps.

Enhancing employability often means simply surfacing the benefits of existing pedagogic approaches, and the skills and attributes innate to the subject. It is not necessarily about doing more or adding things in, but might be a case of making small changes which can have a significant impact for students.

How can you do this in practice?

Clearly enhancing employability requires us working together, and the expertise of the Careers Service is here to help you. This series of blogs will provide you with practical advice and ideas to get started, and share some of the fantastic practice already happening across the institution.

Look out for our next posts which cover topics including surfacing employability already in your programmes, helping students to recognise and articulate their skills, and developing opportunities for real-world learning.

We would love to hear from you too.

  • How are you enhancing employability through your units or programmes?
  • What else do you need advice or inspiration on in order to do this?

Share your feedback to help us develop our advice and guidance in the coming months. Get in touch with Ellen (Faculty Employability Manager) at


Addressing disparities and the shadow pandemic

As universities continue to be affected by the Covid-19 situation, colleagues are asked to redesign the curriculum for online and blended learning, as well as continue other academic duties remotely. Much of the conversation focuses on this stressful experience for staff, the time pressure to transform our curriculum, and how these changes dramatically impact the student experience. In this frayed situation, we can already see how the pandemic is causing greater societal disparities, such as a gender divide in academic publication rates (Fazackery 2020; Flaherty 2020), and disparities for BAME* staff and students (Singh 2020). 

*Black, Asian and Minority Ethnicities 

The Shadow Pandemic 

A recent article from Inside Higher Ed describes a ‘Shadow Pandemic’, how Covid-19 has exacerbated xenophobia, racism and discrimination (Venkat Mani 2020). While the piece concerns the particular social context in the USA, it is worth reading as it pushes us to be active in how we respond to this Shadow Pandemic, rather than complacently relying on top level leadership.  

To address this issue, here are some inclusive teaching principles to consider in your practice drawn from an AdvanceHE presentation by Jess Moody

  • No one should be left behind – identify our most vulnerable groups 
  • Do no more harm – don’t compound existing structural inequalities in the crisis 
  • Be transparent and flexible 
  • Make sure you understand the impact of your decisions 

Further resources are listed below. 

BAME support 

When reworking your curriculum, you can support BAME inclusion and success by following guidance available on the grp-BME Success Sharepoint site. The site includes a helpful inclusion guide that features practical examples to support BAME students in all aspects of their student experience. Recommended steps that staff can take include: 

  • Read up to date materials regarding under-represented groups in Higher Education 
  • Appreciate BAME Students may have different experiences and needs 
  • Establish ways for students to interact with other students from different backgrounds 
  • Extend beyond European culture or history to include a wider view of the world 

There’s also information on the BAME Success Programme and nominated Success Advocates for each faculty who are available to support you. 

We have also produced a blog post summarising top guidance from AdvancedHE on equality, diversity and inclusion (EDI). The piece was written by one of the Success Advocates, Samya Sarfaraz, who notes that the eight themes of EDI is a useful framework for all disciplines. It helps us see where our practice is strongest and where more work still needs to be done. 

It’s worth noting that not everyone agrees with the use of the acronym BAME. One of our University of Bristol academics, Dr Foluke Ifejola Adebisi, writes this useful prompt on how we might consider other terminology “The Only Accurate Part of ‘BAME’ is the ‘and’…”. In the writing of this blog, I’ve chosen to include the term BAME as it is the term currently employed throughout our university systems and guidance. When engaging with contemporary issues such as the Black Lives Matter movement, BAME becomes a less appropriate term that can obfuscate appropriate responses to and understandings of lived Black experiences.  

Maintaining integrity through adversary 

In March 2020, the Bristol Medical School became the first in the UK to adopt a new BAME charter to address racial harassment. In May 2020, the University of Bristol achieved Silver and Bronze Athena SWAN awards in recognition of its progress on gender equality. Many of our staff are leaders in equality and diversity, yet this progress is put at risk because of the pressures caused by the pandemic. 

It’s difficult to be asked to consider the complexities of social inequalities when we are under pressure. However, it is important that this time of stress does not further negatively impact the most vulnerable or disenfranchised in our institutions. Before, during and after the pandemic, we should have pride in our ability to ensure equitability for all.  

If you haven’t already, our Digital Design course includes a session on designing inclusively. You can take the course asynchronously in August – sign up here. Staff who would like a refresher on the session are welcome to take the course again.  

 Dr Aisling (Ash) Tierney –  



The Social Determinants of Well-being: A holistic approach to supporting students capacity to flourish in Higher Education.

Financial stress a major burden on student success – On The Record
UniSa – On The Record.

The story of health and wellbeing inequity swiftly entered the conversation with the COVID-19 outbreak and the Black Lives Matter movement. Whilst recent government reports have shown that the BME COVID-19 infection and morbidity rates are much higher than their white counterparts, and the infection rates are also higher in more deprived parts of the city, country (and the world), it follows that there is also more experiences of grief, health-related anxieties, and other forms of acute virus-related psychological distress. The outcome of young people’s immediate contact with the stark reality of disproportionate viral risk in less affluent areas and BME communities opens up a wider discussion about the disparities in the levels of wellbeing among the young people in Higher Education.

University services rightly talk about widening participation prior to university. But it is less often that we hear about the uneven gradients of health, wellbeing, and academic engagement among different social groups of students once their studies commence – the playing field still remains unlevel after access.

The efforts of the University and Bristol SU to integrate under-represented students cannot go unnoticed. There has been more reluctance, however, to publicise more critical, albeit still serious, conversations about the connection between racism, classism, and mental illness in our University. In any case, the disparate health and wellbeing outcomes of BME and low-income students are not just facts to take note of for future reference, but conditions to be challenged immediately and not merely performatively. Although conversations about personal finance and economic privilege often feel quite taboo in public settings and workplaces. These are awkward conversations at best or emotionally-charged at worse. But, in the current political moment, the conversations must happen so as to avoid downplaying the unequal access to financial resources between students at UK Higher Education institutions.

Holistic approaches to wellbeing acknowledge how social background, day-to-day financial insecurities, and experiences of microagressions threaten wellbeing. To effectively grapple with questions about student wellbeing, we must also factor in concerns about student finances, stressful and precarious part-time work, and the time affluence of students from particularly privileged social backgrounds.

Financial setbacks, disproportionate numbers of COVID-related deaths (and grief) in poorer areas, compromised free time to study, and perceptions of wider inequities that creep into university life can hinder motivation, academic attainment, and a students’ sense of belonging within the university community.

Of course, there is no clear-cut correlation between access to essential funds and wellbeing or the lack of financial support and low levels of wellbeing. But as with any human situation, the added financial concerns, pressures, and insecurity pose a greater detriment to wellbeing for students without access to financial resources than those with access.

Public health researchers and wellbeing educators have recently reconsidered how we talk about wellness and illness. One paper noted that by emphasising lifestyles modifications, medication, and ‘taking personal responsibility’ for our own wellbeing, we neglect considerations concerning the structural determinants influencing a person’s behaviours. Such an approach runs the risk of creating a kind of ‘victim-blaming’ narrative in our wellbeing services. (Sharma et al. 2018) Relying on services which promote an individuals’ initiative to take wellbeing practice into their own hands and change a few habits in their lifestyle without any wider psychosocial work or specific support services for the marginalised social groups seems inadequate.

The Story So Far

The University has been working to eliminate barriers to participation in Higher Education for students from low to middle-income backgrounds with their ‘Access to Bristol schemes’. Widening access, though fruitful, does not mark the endpoint of addressing barriers to social mobility and student’s capacity to excel. A sizeable proportion of students in the UOB community report that their parents are not in a position to help them financially or because their parents’ own financial situation was difficult.

Studying in an affluent city like Bristol is costly. A 2016 UPP report on student experiences finds that 73% of 558 respondents listed financial difficulties as a factor that makes university life hard to cope with, coming second only to the stress of studying by a single per cent. The troubling fact is that maintenance loans remain the same regardless of city, other than London, which is understandably seen by many fellow students as frustrating. Interviews conducted in 2016, for instance, frequently reported the relatively high cost of rent in Bristol compared with other UK cities. The severe shortage of affordable housing in Bristol is an issue that affects all Bristol residents, but for students who negotiate their housing situation with peers from different financial backgrounds, finance-related distress and hostile feelings of “us and them” can disrupt the University’s new aim of creating a sense of belonging.

“My stepdad said ‘Bristol is so much more expensive than Sheffield’ and I was weighing up the two for Uni’s and I didn’t really get it: ‘what do you mean, more expensive, what like a fiver more a week or something?’ and in reality, it’s probably more like £40 a week or something and I just didn’t understand that this kind of money is like a whole day’s work on minimum wage” (Year 3, A2B bursary in Davies & Harris 2016)  

Not all the under-represented students find it easy to fit comfortably into the existing culture of what is regarded by many students both inside and outside Bristol as a “posh university”. The conversations between students about ski trips, intercontinental holidays, and research trips have also been noted as affecting student’s perception of their “belonging” within a wider University community that shows signs of wealth and privilege.

(Davies & Harris, 2016)

“The majority of students here are quite obviously privileged …with Anthropology obviously travelling is quite a big thing …a girl the other day was saying that her parents bought her trip to Poland and a trip to Thailand for her birthday and I’m sat there going, well I went to Wales yesterday. Wales is brilliant but you know, there’s like a bit of competitiveness…” (Year 2, UoB bursary in Davies & Harris 2016)

It is important to remember the economic disparity between students is not the only threat here, as the competitive attitudes brought into the University environment also shape students’ response to the inequities between them and their peers.

In 2016 Bristol students experiencing financial insecurity were found to be twice as likely to report mental illness/ (Davies, 2016) Many of these cases involved mature students, whose finance-related worries tied up with supporting partners and/or family, organising part-time degrees around jobs. Also, first-generation working-class students navigate a radically different culture of leisurely (often costly) pursuits on top of the increased financial uncertainty after entering University: alcohol, live music events, and sporting activities.

With regards to the increased cost of living in a city like Bristol, the University marketing team has a duty towards honesty in their production of promotional materials to prospective students. Especially those students joining universities which ‘down-the-line’ may make studying difficult to financially manage. Where help is not received from parents, widening-participation students often encounter additional sources of worry and instability. This experience feels all the more devastating when students’ expectation of University was shaped by glossy marketing.

The added stress of dealing with financial setbacks alone can prove excruciatingly isolating. Particularly when we accept affluent peers into our social circles who are able to rely on parents to support their sense of comfort. According to the 2015 HEFCE, the differential sense of belonging emerged as a key cause of radically different student outcomes. If universities wish to maintain their aims of cultivating a greater “sense of belonging” across our diverse student population, then staff and fellow students will have to become more open to hearing low-income students out, most notably, we must start hearing low-income students out, as detriments to wellbeing often emerge outside the University campus. Listening to students as well as advising students is required for a sufficient institutional comprehension of interrelated struggles concerning financial predicaments and wellbeing. 

Does the ease of student access to financial support from parents really set them on a more privileged trajectory for academic success? Surely, the problem of poor wellbeing emanates from a confluence of factors and the academic outcomes of students are based on merit? Yes, the interactions between aspiration, wellbeing, and attainment are complex. Although some people may remain sceptical of whether financial safety-net inequities actually represent pressing issues for the personal and academic development of students, I have some replies to those maintaining incredulous scepticism. Let us turn to the empirical research.

Unequal social, cultural, and economic capital across Higher Education

The adult wellbeing measurement comprises five questionnaire items with four response levels each and is designed to capture people’s capability to live a life that they value (Al-Janabi et al. 2012). These ‘capabilities’ are stability (feeling settled and secure), attachment (able to achieve love, friendship and support), autonomy (able to be independent), achievement (able to progress in life) and enjoyment (able to experience enjoyment and pleasure) (Al-Janabi et al. 2012). Financial insecurity, barriers to interpersonal connection with fellow students in the University community, and struggles to maintain financial independence and

The notion of cultural/social capital refers to the transmission of attitudes and esteem that enforces ways of behaving (Modood, 2011). It goes without saying that students enter the university with different access to resources and social and economic capabilities. In Higher Education, this is exemplified by how different students’ network, how they draw on external support, and their financial security, all of which affect how much students engage with learning. Also, the financial responsibilities low-income students must endure take away from their study time and often leave students feeling tired, more-stressed, and overworked. 

Recent institutional fieldwork (2015) reports wide disparities between informal academic support that is offered to students possessing numerous socioeconomic resources. These examples range from middle-class students who email essays to university-educated parents and wider family networks to proof-read and regularly Skype to share work, through to first-generation working-class students unable to draw on the same pool of resources.

Underrepresented students could benefit from the wider expansion of the peer-mentoring initiative, so as to incorporate more first-generation student role models both inside the student and scholarly community. I hope to see peer-review events and widening-participation initiatives brought forth into academic settings throughout the University experience, not just prior. The University does have a role in acknowledging the unequal access to essay-enhancement and mentoring resources from larger social networks and we must be finding ways of mitigating against that risk.

Work Life Balance

A significant number of Bristol undergraduates have paid jobs in term time, with others taking on paid work during the summer break or both. Undoubtedly, the money earned from paid work supplements income from loans, grants, and bursaries. Still, even with support from this income, financial maintenance in the city of Bristol can prove challenging for many low to middle-income students. 

The challenges of balancing part-time work alongside academic study, extracurricular engagement, and social interaction matched with student perceptions of stark disparities between access to financial support establish a troubling concern for lower-income students wishing “to belong” in the wider University culture.

The message coming from stakeholders consulted for a study done by King’s College in 2015 reported that students’ experiences within HE are definitely affected by financial issues: ‘a student who is in university has more things on their plate. When there are financial issues, they are obviously in a different position from someone who does not have to deal with such concerns’. (p, 36) Also, in our current volatile political climate, students are easily at risk of losing their jobs and have few of the necessary finances to continue’. (SH 8) ‘Being in paid employment for long hours during term time and devoting fewer hours to independent study both have significant effects on students’ self-reported learning gain.

What are the lived experiences of low-income students reliant on part-time jobs to survive University?

On a purely anecdotal level, the start of the second year of University marked a period where I desperately searched for part-time jobs to acquire an income that could sustain basic financial maintenance through Teaching Block One. This was necessary since the majority of my (sizeable) maintenance loan was set aside for the rising rental prices across Bristol, particularly neighbourhoods close to the Clifton Campus.

Looking back, I learnt a lot from the challenging experiences of part-time night shifts in a hectic nightclub. I now know the type of work that does not suit me in terms of personal wellbeing. I need sleep to survive and thrive in academia. But how did I end up in part time work that was so detrimental to my wellbeing? The simple answer: financial desperation.

More importantly, I learnt about the experience of alienation from peers, a growing sense of hostility, and ill-will towards the immense privilege of frivolous spending among fellow students. The sleep deprivation correlated with huge disruptions to my concentration levels and the quality of my studies. I was unable to think clearly because I rarely slept well. This loss of enthusiasm for learning was matched with lost opportunities to socialise after studying with course friends because “I had to work” which more and more troubling as time went on. The breaking point was when all of this disturbance was met with disappointing grades and little else to show for my time at University other than a zero-hour contract. I had to leave the job for the sake of my degree. I left myself in a worrying financial situation and was on the brink of dropping out of my studies, as I was so desperate to escape and find solace in my friendships back home.

How do we address these socioeconomic contributors to low-level wellbeing? As a supplement to the current guides to wellbeing services, explicit route planners or maps to bursaries, financial assistance schemes, and scholarships, would have helped students in similar situations comprehend where the “safety net” options for financial support were located.  First-generation/low-income students also need more indirect and explicit “know-how” information concerning how to ‘package’ the opportunities, services, and support available at University into a valuable ‘personal capital’. Such a package will need to suit schedules which are often overrun with precarious part-time work and financial strains. Knowing where the opportunities were and how to access them would have proven invaluable.

Also, it seems sensible to caution against any temptation to overplay the importance of instilling “student initiative” and “individual responsibility” in students who are embedded in highly-complex psychosociological situations. This is because financially stretched students with low levels of wellbeing and histories of lapsing into mental illnesses, such as Generalized Anxiety Disorder, report a lack of motivation, immense confusion, inability to focus on daily tasks, and fundamental needs for greater support bases when stable levels of mental health are deteriorating.  

Of course, the sheer scale of unequal access to financial income goes beyond the interiority of the University. But financial pressures and alienation from affluent peers must be taken into consideration when assessing the wellbeing of students from widening participation/BME backgrounds.

To become the empathetic and informed members of a university looking to increase students’ sense of belonging, we must acknowledge the interplay between financial concerns, poor levels of wellbeing, and disappointing academic outcomes. To do any justice to the wellbeing agenda, the socioeconomic concerns of staff and student communities must be addressed without stigma, without hostility.


Blackman, T. What affects how much students learn? HEPI Policy Note 5, 2018 https://www.

Davies, S & Harris, R. 2016. Widening Participation? Exploring the effect of financial support and outreach on the experiences of students in Bristol. Report. Bristol Policy Research Repository.

Stallman, H. M. (2010). Psychological distress in university students: A comparison with general population data. Australian Psychologist, 45, 249–257. doi:10.1080/00050067.2010.482109

Eisenberg D, Golberstein E, Gollust SE. (2007). Help-seeking and access to mental health care in a university student population. Med Care. 2007;45(7):594–601

UPP, Annual Student Experience Study (2016)

Reid and Solomon. (2019) Financial concern predicts deteriorations in mental and physical health among university students.

WHO Commission on Social Determinants of Health. Closing the gap in a generation: health equity through action on social determinants of health. Geneva, WHO, 2008.


Call for Chapters: ‘Learning in lockdown: Innovative teaching and academic support in higher education during COVID-19 crisis’.

I would like to invite you to submit a chapter proposal for the co-edited book titled ‘Learning in lockdown: Innovative teaching and academic support in higher education during COVID-19 crisis’. I am particularly interested to receive case studies, drawn from different academic disciplines or learning/teaching support programmes.

The chapters of the book will report innovative teaching, learning and academic support schemes implemented at universities during COVID-19 pandemic. The authors are expected to follow a systematic and robust evaluation approach in the presentation of their 4000-word case study. Examples of evaluation may include drawing findings from an empirical study or literature review, a reflective or critical analysis of educational theories and concepts, or a combination of all of them. Additionally, the authors can consider connecting their discussion with one or more underlying features of higher education, for example, instructional design, assessment, inclusion, and professional development for faculty members.

Please write to me ( for the full call including scope of the book and abstract writing guidelines.




Learning to live well in lockdown: A student’s diary on the Science of Happiness course

When I heard the Science of Happiness course was being made available, I was immediately curious. Not only did Bruce Hood’s course offering provide the prospect of doing something to cheer me up during lockdown, but because I’ve spent the past year admiring the authentic learning techniques used in the Bristol Futures course. However, I had my reservations, with over 700 students and only 4 weeks can this really improve my happiness? Either way, I had the time to try.  

Week 1:  

After the usual technical difficulties, the lecture began. Personally, I am not the biggest fan of watching things online and unlike many student’s RePlay has always baffled me, but this lecture actively encouraged you to engage. Using the chatbot rather than being asked to raise your hand/ turn on your video and microphone made it feel safer to ask questions. I was less afraid of asking a stupid question, or of my video freezing at a comical moment (the new reliance on technology does not suit my decrepit laptop). We were also encouraged to use the chatbot for just that: chat. Hearing about where people were from and what they were feeling grateful for made it feel more like I was in a room of likeminded people rather than staring at blank screens.  

From an authentic learning standpoint, the Science of Happiness really glows, particularly in the way that it is ‘assessed’ (as an optional course it is not credit bearing assessment). Before setting our weekly task, Prof. Hood provided an entire slide about WHY we should be doing these tasks and HOW it would be helpful for us. This is always something I have struggled with at university, being set tasks that at the time feel arbitrary and I am unsure about what their purpose is or the skills I am developing. By explaining it simple terms why we should be doing the task, it made me look forward to doing it, and excited to see the possible results.  

From the perspective of a student in lockdown, I was excited to see the blending of synchronous and asynchronous teaching. Again, with a decrepit laptop and dodgy internet connection, the interactive seminars were not always in my favour, so the opportunity to reflect on the course in my own time by completing small daily tasks was appealing. Similarly, a big part of this course seems to be about reflection: on your day; on your experiences; on your relationships. I am also applying this to my learning outside of this course with the hope it might become a valuable ‘Way to Wellbeing’, particularly in a time when it is easy to wish things were different.  

All in all, I’m looking forward to the rest of this course, and who knows, maybe it’ll make my life in lockdown a little bit happier

Week 2:  

As forewarned, my hedonistic adaptation kicked in slightly this week, and although I noticed a significant change in my mood shortly after the first lecture I have now noticed it drop back down to normal; external factors may have come into play with this week being full of deadlines. Nonetheless, the homework, write 3 things that went well in your day has been making my evenings far more pleasant, and I have been able to savour the little things much better: sitting on the grass with my dog, really good bread etc. Also, by doing a little bit of asynchronous work each day (8-10 minutes) I have really stayed engaged with the ideas and concepts behind the lectures. 

This week for our homework we are to write a gratitude letter expressing our thanks to someone close to us and READ IT TO THEM. While I see how helpful this would be, I would be lying if I said that my inner Stiff Upper Lip is battling against my desire to try and reach a new level of sustained happiness. We will see, I have the feeling that with the right amount of nervous laughter and self-deprecating jokes I will manage to stutter the words out. 

One aspect of the lecture that really changed the way that I am currently viewing lockdown is the idea of ‘Focalism’: being obsessed with one thing and thus being unable to see the context and situations that go on alongside it. This is easy to do with university at the best of times, focusing so hard on the stress of impending deadlines that you fail to see any of the positives going on around you. Lockdown puts this into hyperdrive, and I have previously spent days absorbed in the news, not focusing on the fact that the weather’s been lovely in England for almost eight weeks or that the lack of dog groomers means that the family dog now resembles a pompom made by a very young child who has not yet mastered their motor skills.  

Week 3:  

This week was on mindfulness. Not to sound too colloquial, but mindfulness is my jam. I love yoga and meditation and am a full believer in breathwork, chakras, EVERYTHING. I greatly enjoyed the homework and the five-minute meditation session mid-lecture. For any two-hour lecture, I would say this is a must halfway through.  A lot of the lecture this week focused on the impact of exercise on mood, and while I think most people know that, I was surprised to find that the reasoning behind this was not the endorphins released (although I’m sure that helps) but a routine. By committing a bit of time each week to something it gives us structure, which in turn makes us feel more purposeful and ultimately, happy.  

Week 4:  

The final week was on goal setting, and I am beginning to see the benefits of going through all the studies which initially while I enjoyed as they are interesting examples, thought they detracted from the core content. This course has not told me anything I didn’t already know; diet, exercise and sleep are important and through reflecting, mindfulness and gratitude you can feel more fulfilled, but it has allowed me to understand all of these concepts on a deeper level and empathise with my past self about why I may have failed to do these things in the past and imagine the obstacles that may stop me doing it in the future.  

Pedagogically, there were also many aspects of the course that I really enjoyed. The variety of homework was something that I really relished, and it was enjoyable having a distinction from week to week. In a lockdown exam context, it helped to break up the monotony of essays and gave me something productive to do each day. Furthermore, while I was not very good at keeping up with the Nudge app, the fact that I had a medium to contact my lecturers without logging on to blackboard and my email, meant that if I was having problems with any of the tasks I could contact them in a less formal manner than logging on to blackboard.  

I guess the ultimate question is, am I happier because of taking the course? For anyone who knows me, I’m a pretty cheerful person anyway, so I’m not sure my happiness has gone up drastically. However, I have noticed significantly less ‘bad days’, and my ability to cope with these bad days has felt more conscious as if I am equipped with strategies to do so.  Similarly, I feel like I’ve been able to appreciate the good days more and be a little bit more present in moments of enjoyment. In short, I am a believer, and would strongly recommend anyone and everyone to enrol on this course in the future.  

Marnie Woodmeade, Student Fellow