This is part of a monthly guest blog series by Professor Jon Scott. Jon is a higher education consultant with extensive experience in quality assurance and developing practice in learning and teaching. His most recent academic roles were as Professor of Bioscience Education and Pro-Vice-Chancellor (Student Experience) at the University of Leicester.
The last three weeks have seen the publication of a number of surveys and data about higher education. The backdrop to these surveys reflects a significant degree of turmoil with 2019-20 having been disrupted by industrial action and then the COVID-19 lockdown. Nonetheless, as the sector looks ahead to the start of a new and very different academic year, the insights from these surveys will help to inform student choices and also the strategies of higher education institutions.
In this context, the 2020 edition of the annual Student Academic Experience Survey, published by AdvanceHE in collaboration with the Higher Education Policy Institute, does provide some significant insights into the perceptions of students.
The analysts were able to divide the respondents between those who responded before 16th March 2020, which included the impacts of the industrial action, and those responding between then and 4th April, during the first weeks of lockdown.
Value for money
As revealed by the Student Academic Experience Survey, the headline indicator of the perception of ‘good/very good value for money’ showed a small decline compared with last year of 1%, to 40% before lockdown, then dropping to 38% during lockdown. The impacts of the disruptions were evident in the free text comments from the survey with reflections on the industrial action and the lockdown.
This decline also mirrors the data fed back from the Enlitened student app at the end of April, which showed that only 36% of respondents felt they were getting value for money.
Reality of the student experience compared to expectation
Despite all these issues, it is notable that through the Student Academic Experience Survey, 26% of respondents considered that the experience was better than they had expected. This was an improvement compared with the previous three years. While the proportion who felt that their experience was worse than expected remained flat at 13%, effectively remaining unchanged since 2013.
Digging into the underlying reasons for the experience being better than expected, the highest scoring factor – identified by 51% of students – was that they felt the course had the right level of academic challenge.
It is also notable that staff support in relation to feedback was viewed more positively. This has always been an area where institutions have been challenged by low levels of satisfaction. But this year, all aspects of feedback provision showed improvements in satisfaction, reflecting the ongoing efforts to improve the position.
This was particularly evident regarding the provision of general feedback on progress, which has improved year-on-year since 2016. Though there remains a way to go as it is still only identified positively by 48% of respondents.
The importance of community for students
Community aspects of student life were considered almost as important as academic challenge. Factors contributing to the experience were better than expected with 49% of respondents citing the interaction with other students and 45% the interaction with staff as key factors. Also in this context, 67% of respondents felt that the teaching staff were helpful and supportive, representing a small increase on the last two years.
Interaction and community are also reflected in the numbers of contact hours experienced by the students. These did increase slightly by comparison with previous years, with an overall average of 14.6 hours per week compared with 13.9 in 2019.
Student satisfaction with the number of contact hours showed a clear progression with the most satisfied being those with the highest number of contact hours, which also tend to be the strongly vocational subject areas. Overall, however, the levels of satisfaction declined from 65% last year to 62% this year.
These observations chime with findings from Enlitened about the importance of community for university students, as revealed through ideas submitted by students via the app, as well as an end of year feedback survey. The findings highlight the importance students attach to communications and the sense of community. Unfortunately, these show that students feel there has been a decline in the sense of community and the quality of communication since the beginning of the lockdown.
The Office for National Statistics reports annually on measures of national wellbeing. This includes four key measures of personal wellbeing:
- Life Satisfaction
- Life Worthwhile
- Low Anxiety
In the 2020 Student Academic Experience Survey, the proportions of students rating these measures very highly are all half, or even less of those of the 20-24-year-old general population. Furthermore, Low Anxiety is the only indicator that has not decreased by comparison with last year and comparing the Survey data from before and after 16th March, there was a further decrease in Happiness over that period.
These findings re-emphasise the importance we noted in last month’s blog of the Office for Students’ observation that ‘all students are likely to require increased pastoral support and resources to support their wellbeing’.
In this context, alongside all the work being done by universities to support their students, there has recently been the very welcome announcement of the development of Student Space. Launching in July, Student Space will realise a major collaboration led by Student Minds, with £3m funding from the Office for Students, to provide a single platform for accessing support for mental health and wellbeing.
Graduate employment and the future
Another area where students will need even more support than usual is in gaining graduate level employment. In its briefing paper of 18th June on graduate employability, the Office for Students cites the findings from a survey conducted by the Institute of Student Employers that predicts an overall reduction in graduate recruitment by 12% over the coming year. In almost all areas surveyed, although the impact of the pandemic on graduate recruitment is severe, it is less profound than the reductions in internships and on non-graduate recruitment.
It is clear that the careers services of many universities have re-aligned and stepped up their activities to support their students. As well as marked increases in the use of online resources and a range of digital channels, the Office for Students’ paper cites some specific case studies such as the active reaching out to final year students by the University of Portsmouth and the online careers guidance resources and one-to-one support offered by the University of Winchester.
Given the current uncertainties, it is perhaps not surprising that only 18% of the respondents to the Student Academic Experience Survey felt very prepared for the future. There was a correlation with contact hours in that 32% of those with the highest numbers of contact hours felt very prepared compared with only 14% of those with the least.
Again, this is likely to relate to the vocational nature of those high contact hour courses, such as Medicine, Dentistry Veterinary Sciences and Education – all of which incorporate high levels of professional development. A further relation is that the major influence on future success most highly rated by students was the range of wider skills developed while at university.
Employment outcomes were also the focus of the Higher Education Graduate Outcomes Statistics, released by the Higher Education Statistics Agency (also on the 18th June). This was the first publication of the new form of graduate employment data replacing the Destinations of Leavers from Higher Education Survey. One of the core changes is that the Graduate Outcomes Statistics report on graduate employment 15 months after course completion, rather than six months as previously.
90% of the respondents were in employment or further study 15 months after finishing their course. The reflections of the UK graduates on their employment show a generally positive picture with:
- Over 93% agreeing that their current activity is meaningful
- 89% agreeing that it fits in with their future plans
- 80% agreeing that they are utilising what they learnt during their university studies
Leading the sector’s recovery
Without doubt, as I have discussed in this and the last two blogs, students and the higher education sector as a whole are facing significant challenges as a result of the pandemic which are, to some extent, amplifying some pre-existing issues.
It is very important, though, not to lose sight of the fact that the sector and its graduates will also be critical in leading the recovery. This is not just in the immediate areas, such as the medical research, but also in terms of technological and societal developments. A poll conducted by Public First on behalf of the University Alliance found that more than 70% of the public think that universities will play an important role in the UK’s recovery both through the research and innovation and the training they provide.
For more from Jon, read last month’s blog with insights about students’ perspectives during the COVID-19 pandemic and the UK lockdown. If you have any comments or questions, feel free to contact us or get in touch with Jon directly on Twitter at @jon_scott. You can also find out more about how the Enlitened platform works here.