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Advance HE/Higher Education Policy Institute (HEPI) Student Academic Experience Survey 2022

The survey report is based on a total of 10,142 responses from members of the YouthSight Student Panel (9,258) and Pureprofile (884). They were collected in February and March 2022 and represent a response rate of 18 per cent. This year’s survey retained a number of key questions to provide annual comparisons, such as value-for-money, wellbeing, ratings of teaching staff and time spent learning. A number of new questions have been included on sense of belonging, perceptions of free speech on campus and the diversity of the curriculum. Questions are also asked about the reasons for taking paid work and whether extensions for assignments were requested. The report also includes analysis on a fully open question about how the student experience might be improved.

Access the report.

At-a-glance:

  • 35 per cent of students reported ‘good’ or ‘very good’ value for money - a significant improvement from 27% last year. 32 per cent reported ‘poor’ or ‘very poor’ value, against 44 per cent in 2021 (p11)
  • The survey shows a clear upturn in perceptions of value held by students from England (24 per cent in 2021 rising to 35 per cent in 2022) and Wales (29 per cent in 2021 up to 40 per cent in 2022) (p12)
  • Perceptions of value among Scottish students have declined slightly (50 per cent in 2021 down to 48 per cent in 2022). This is likely related to students’ experience of a longer period of Covid restrictions and a lack of in-person teaching. Northern Ireland students view their experience as having the lowest value – 28 per cent – a slight improvement from 2021 at 27 per cent (p12)
  • A question on the persistence of online teaching in the 2021/22 academic year revealed that for 13 per cent of students, between 91 per cent and 100 per cent of lectures were taught online (students from Scotland indicated 40 per cent). 38 per cent of students had half or more of their lectures delivered online. 20 per cent of respondents said half or more of their labs and seminars were delivered online. But a third reported no online lectures or seminars/labs (p39)
  • Significant factors influencing poor value are tuition fees, teaching quality and the cost of living, the latter two both being of greater importance than in last year’s survey. More than twice as many students said they were most concerned about the cost of living (52 per cent) as the cost of tuition fees (23 per cent) (p14)
  • Strike action stands out as a factor in students’ comments about poor value. The fieldwork period coincided directly with a major period of strike action at many universities, following on from other periods of industrial action the previous year. For a clear proportion of students, strikes are seen as impacting negatively on the experience and the perception of value (p16, p28)
  • The proportion who feel their experience of university has been better than expected has increased significantly from 13 per cent to 17 per cent, while the proportion who feel their experience has been worse than expected has fallen sharply from 27 per cent to 17 per cent (p17)
  • University remains a very popular choice and is one that is endorsed by the majority of students when looking back on their decision to enter HE. 59 per cent would make the same choice again, a relatively high number in absolute terms, but below the 2019 pre-pandemic level (p22)
  • Mental health remains a very significant concern. It is by a considerable margin the most significant reason students give for considering leaving university - 34 per cent citing mental health. The next most frequent reason was ‘course content not what I expected’ at 8 per cent. Students underlined the importance of lecture staff being able to support them as well as mental health specialists (p24)
  • In open questions about improving the academic experience, the most frequently raised topics were, in order: quality of feedback; quantity of in-person teaching; administrative failures; mental health support, and strike action (p25) 
  • 64 per cent agreed or agreed strongly with the statement that ‘I feel comfortable expressing my viewpoint, even if my peers do not agree with me’, with 14 per cent disagreeing or disagreeing strongly. Black and Asian students were less likely to agree that they heard a variety of views on campus (58 per cent and 61 per cent agree versus 72 per cent of White students) (p29)
  • While the majority of students felt that their curriculum was sufficiently inclusive and diverse, with only 8 per cent disagreeing, only 56 per cent of Black students agreed as opposed to 73 per cent of White students (p29)

 

Implications for governance:

On many of the key measures in the Advance HE/HEPI student experience survey, higher education is clearly bouncing back after the challenges of the Covid-19 period. This will no doubt be heartening for governors, but there are still clearly some issues around value which have implications for institutional reputation, and therefore also for governance.

Although overall perceptions of value are recovering, numbers have not yet fully reached their pre-pandemic levels. Just short of a third of students this year rated their university experience as “poor” or “very poor” value for money.

In Scotland, where a number of restrictions were still in place when the survey was conducted, including limits to face-to-face interaction, negative value for money proportions were higher with more than half perceiving poor or very poor value.  Students from Scotland are more likely to cite the lack of in-person opportunities as being behind their rating of poor value than students from England.

The figures and the geographically differences, demonstrate a strong correlation between in-person teaching and perceptions of value. 

Comments by participants highlight this clearly and in the minds of this cohort at least it may be that online teaching is inextricably linked to the challenge of the Covid-19 experience: “Watching videos at home is 10 times less motivating and engaging than going in-person,” said one.

The extent of online teaching post-pandemic varies from none for a third of students to half or more lectures being delivered online for nearly 40 per cent of respondents and one in five having online seminars/lab sessions.

The prevalence and quality of online delivery has been questioned by ministers and is now under scrutiny from the Office for Students in its review of blended learning. Higher Education Institutions are still in the process of establishing where the best balance lies between traditional teaching and digital offerings, but governors will want to take into account the importance that students place on in-person teaching.

Factors most cited as having a bearing on poor value were tuition fees, teaching quality and the cost of living, the latter two both being of greater importance than in last year’s survey. The cost of living is obviously beyond universities control but as it deepens it will undoubtedly put pressure on students and is a major cause of anxiety. Some groups, such as students with disabilities or those from disadvantaged backgrounds, may be more greatly affected than others. Hardship funds and other targeted support will become more vital as the crisis progresses and could impact continuation rates, anxiety levels and mental health problems.

For students whose university experience was worse than expected this year, perceptions of teaching quality, lack of support with independent study and inadequate feedback loomed large. The top three reasons for a better than expected experience were a well organised course pitched at the right level of challenge and the accessibility of teaching staff (this last factor was one of the most important responses to a question about factors that foster students’ sense of belonging).

Previous surveys show that feedback is a perennial problem and figured largely in open responses to a new question on how to improve HE. Students want faster, more specific and less broad/generic feedback. They also want more one to one conversations with tutors/lecturers about their progress and more clarity on how work is graded. Governors may wish to refer to their institutions’ performance in the National Student Survey in this area to consider how much attention it warrants, and also what bearing this has on their responsibilities for academic governance.

A sobering finding that governors will also want to note is the high proportion (38 per cent) indicating their mental and emotional health as the dominant issue impacting upon likelihood of non-continuation – which is now receiving greater attention from regulators. Students often reported that the support they need was not there when they need it. In some cases, this was due to waiting lists or staffing issues, while in others there were more systemic issues around processes.

Allied to this, anxiety levels generally are higher than among the general population. Trans students are significantly more likely to feel anxious, with levels of anxiety at the same level as last year. Nearly a quarter of students said they felt lonely ‘most’ or ‘all of the time’, compared to only 5 per cent of the general population (in 2020).  Feeling lonely all or most of the time was a particular problem for Black students (31 per cent), LGB+ students (30 per cent), students with a disability (36 per cent), and trans students (47 per cent).

Other breakdowns of responses by student characteristics show a continuing trend in lower ratings by Black, Asian and Minority Ethnic students. On value-for-money, the relative gap between Black, Asian and Minority Ethnic and White students has risen to 11 per cent. Only half of BAME respondents would choose the same course and university again. The data also suggests a clear difference in the experience of disabled students, with low perception of value and lower likelihood to make the same choice again. For governors, the findings confirm the importance of diversity and inclusion work. The Advance HE/HEPI survey report recommends that universities should proactively design programming that will help build cohesion among students, especially those whose courses have been severely affected by the pandemic.

As the survey report points out, higher education’s ability to address many of these concerns and shortfalls will depend on funding and governors will be acutely aware of the increasing squeeze on resources. The report warns that without significant increases to the funding envelope for teaching across the UK in future years, it is difficult to see how universities will be able to fulfil students' expectations.

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