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.
This new report from Enlitened shares insight into students’ perspectives during the COVID-19 pandemic and the UK lockdown, based on the responses of students from four universities to questions over the 12-weeks leading up to 26th April.
For background, these questions were asked via the Enlitened student app, which since its launch in February 2019, has provided ongoing feedback regarding student engagement and wellbeing for its university partners.
Dealing with uncertainty
It is not surprising, under the circumstances, that the levels of anxiety amongst the student population have increased significantly and their sense of wellbeing has dropped accordingly: between mid-March to the end of April, the proportion of students who reported feeling emotionally well dropped from 63% to 48%.
Much of this is related to the associated uncertainties and in March, only 36% of responders agreed that they felt able to cope with the current uncertainty – though this rose to 48% by the end of April. This is by no means a good position, but the positive direction is to be welcomed.
Supporting students throughout this period
One key way for universities to reduce uncertainty is by taking critical decisions as quickly as they can, backed up by effective communications. As we discussed in last month’s blog, universities have moved swiftly to restructure their assessments and have communicated these changes to their students: the findings from the new insight report report showed that at the start of the lockdown, only 39% of students agreed that the assessment processes were clear but this rose to 60% over the subsequent weeks. Allied to that, 72% of students felt that their university was communicating well with them in relation to the pandemic.
The ‘provision of clear, accessible and timely communications’ was identified by the Office for Students (OfS) as being essential for supporting the mental wellbeing of the general student population. The OfS also noted that during this period ‘all students are likely to require increased pastoral support and resources to support their wellbeing’ and expressed the expectation that universities should take ‘reasonable steps to put in place equivalent alternative arrangements for such support’.
The OfS has detailed a set of case studies with examples of such good practice from across the sector such as the ‘Support and Partnership’ approach by the University of Sussex and the ‘Be Connected’ programme developed by the University of Stirling. Additionally, very helpful guidance for individual students on looking after their mental health is also available from organisations such as Student Minds.
It is particularly important, though, for institutions to find ways to support those students who are already more vulnerable, for example those with ongoing mental health problems or those who do not have the support networks provided by families.
The impact on university staff
It is also important to recognise that many university staff members are suffering the effects of the current situation too. Many of them have been under significant pressure to get their teaching online as fast as possible, to redesign assessments, and approve new academic regulations.
At the same time, this work is having to be done from home, often with school-age children needing to be cared for as well. As a result, the mental wellbeing of university staff is also affected by the current uncertainty and social disruption.
What this all means for teaching and learning
Inevitably, this level of disruption has impacted on student learning. We have seen that most universities have responded with remarkable agility in transferring to online delivery of teaching. In fact, the new insight report found that 71% of the student responders agreed that they had access to the online resource they need to study. However, only 27% agreed that they felt motivated to study.
For many students, finding somewhere suitable to work with access to adequate IT resources – perhaps in competition with other members of their household – is a challenge that does not help their motivation or ability to engage. Again, many universities have been supportive where they can, for example by providing laptops for students in need.
The proportions of students who responded positively in relation to teaching and engagement declined throughout the first weeks of lockdown but this showed some recovery during April. At the end of March, only 25% of the students felt they were getting value for money. This did increase to 36% by the end of April but was still well below the figure of 46% immediately prior to the lockdown. Bearing in mind that this disruption follows on from two periods of industrial action this year, it is not surprising that there have been calls for refunds of teaching fees: the most recent petition attracted more than 330,000 signatures.
Meanwhile, universities are all scenario planning for the start of the next academic year to consider how they can deliver their teaching. Already, the University of Manchester has announced that all lectures will be delivered online for the autumn term as the logistics of managing large numbers safely will be impossible. They will try to maintain some face-to-face teaching through tutorials and seminars. Similarly, the University of Cambridge has this week declared that all lectures will be online until summer 2021.
No doubt other institutions will be following suit, but the uncertainties around next year are affecting both returning students and those who should be starting at university in September.
The emergence of positive trends
It is important though to also give space to some of the positive trends that are appearing. The Enlitened data shows that 89% of students reported that they feel grateful for what they have in life and 85% felt that they have people who care about them. These indicators have increased respectively from 81% and 73% before the pandemic.
In similar vein, the latest report from Office for National Statistics (ONS), which surveys the population as a whole, found that 67% of the population think Britain will be kind after the country recovers from the pandemic compared with 39% who thought so beforehand. The ONS also reported that 60% of the population felt that Britain would be united after the recovery compared with 21% who thought so before the pandemic struck. If translated into reality, these perceptions would definitely provide a much-needed silver lining.
For more from Jon, read his thoughts on the impact of COVID-19 on university admissions for 2020/21. 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.