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Governance News Alert: Student Academic Experience Survey 2021

Following a year of major upheaval, the annual survey findings give a comprehensive picture of students’ perceptions of the experience of HE during the pandemic. The findings are based on online responses to a survey independently conducted by YouthSight among its student panel, made up of over 47,000 undergraduates in the UK. Carried out between February and March 2021, a total of 10,186 responses were collected. SAES has been running since 2006 and is widely referenced to support policy and evidence for change.

The full report can be found here.


  • Perceptions of value of higher education among students are at historically low levels across the nations of the UK and have fallen significantly. 44% of respondents felt they had received ‘poor or very poor’ value – a significant rise from the 29% with that perception in 2019. Just over a quarter (27%) reported ‘good or very good’ value, reversing the improving trend recorded between 2017 and 2019. (p13)
  • Among the increased number of students who felt their expectations were not met, 54% of these said there was too little in-person contact with other students and 51% said there was too little in-person interaction with staff. (p14)
  • The proportion whose experience has been “mainly worse than expected”, has doubled from 13% to 27%. Students whose experience has been entirely better than expected has fallen from 26% to 13%. (p17)
  • The main academic drivers of this are related to the absence of in-person teaching and interaction with staff and other students. Dissatisfaction was also expressed about contact hours, where there was a slight fall, as well as returning assessments on time and feedback. (p18)
  • For those whose experience exceeded expectations the main factors cited were a well-organised course and the accessibility of teaching staff. (p20)
  • Despite the limitations on the student experience imposed by the pandemic, the majority of students – 58% – would still have chosen the same course and institution. For Asian and black students, however, the figures were 46% and 49% and for trans students it was 41%. (p22)
  • 29% had considered leaving HE, with 34% of those giving mental/ emotional health as the primary reason. The figures for disabled and LGBT+ students were significantly higher. (p23)
  • In a new question this year asking ‘how to improve the academic experience’ the top three areas identified by students were: ‘Improve assessment feedback’; ‘More in-person teaching/campus activities’; and ‘Better communication’. (p26)
  • Two out of three students feel their institution is committed to eliminating racial inequalities, though only 53% of Black students hold this view. A spotlight on specific student groups shows that Black students also have a less positive academic experience than white students. (p34)
  • When asked what contributes most to a sense of belonging, approachable/ accessible academic staff was the most cited response, followed by proximity to other students and proximity to campus. As important to BAME and LGBT+ students was a diverse student population. (p32)
  • Student wellbeing measures in 2021 are at their lowest levels yet, with all four measures falling significantly. (p50)

Implications for governance

It will come as no surprise that students’ perceptions of the HE experience have been impacted negatively by the pandemic – although students do at least acknowledge the huge efforts made by HE providers in rapidly switching to online delivery. Assessments of value and whether expectations have been met or exceeded have fallen significantly.

Arguably the most significant message from the survey from a governance point of view is the very strong preference for in-person teaching displayed by students. A large proportion - 57 per cent - said they preferred in-person teaching (this was particularly the case for state school pupils). This compares to 31 per cent of respondents who supported a blended approach and just 12 per cent who said they wanted mostly online teaching.

Evidence from the survey suggests that online provision does not represent the value students are looking for. The preference for in-person T&L does not appear to be driven by any particular concern around accessibility of technology, but more a clear feeling that a return to in-person teaching is long overdue. Equally important to students was in-person contact with other students and being on campus.

The wholesale move to online teaching last year, and the opportunity this presents going forward, has led institutions to consider what learning should look like post-pandemic. Many are exploring options around maintaining and developing blended learning over the longer term, and a number of have already said there will be some level of online teaching maintained for next year. However, the majority preference for in-person teaching raises many questions about where the balance should be struck and the value that balance represents. As one student put it: “Online isn’t worth £9k+”.

There are also lessons to be learnt about the nature of online learning. Concerns were raised in the survey about the volume of online contact hours, which had reduced slightly compared to 2019. Students also wanted more interaction: as one respondent noted: “There is barely any in-person – I think there could be more. Live lectures instead of pre-recorded, even if online.”

For those whose experience exceeded expectations, the main factors cited were a well-organised course and the accessibility of teaching staff. In a question about what contributes most to a sense of belonging, approachable/accessible academic staff was ranked first. From a governance point of view, accessibility can have implications for staff workload and work/life balance, however, in the absence of in-person teaching, the importance of online connections with staff was obvious.

Related to this are higher level of dissatisfaction with the timely return of assessments and feedback. This is a long-standing issue, but in the absence of in-person teaching, frequent and timely online interactions have taken on greater significance for students. Another notable finding is that when asked what could be improved, many students called for better communication. Governors will be mindful of this as their institution prepares to welcome students back to campus in September, and to keep them informed of any Covid-related regulations and guidance as these evolve over the coming months.

Despite these concerns, the majority of students would still have chosen the same course and institution, a finding that will reassure many governors and is testimony to the huge efforts made by staff and management at an extraordinarily difficult time. Despite the challenges, many students do not feel they have made the wrong choice, but they would have wished for a different experience over the past year.

It should be noted, however, that for Asian and black students, the figures were 46 per cent and 49 per cent respectively, and for trans students it was 41 per cent - differences which could have implications for progression rates and performance gaps. Similarly, while just over a third of respondents said they had considered leaving HE, the figures for disabled students, LGB+ students and trans students were significantly higher.

One of the more encouraging findings from the survey is that the majority of students feel that their institution is committed to eliminating racial inequalities, with only 5 per cent disagreeing. However, this view is not as widely held by Black or Chinese students, many of whom feel more can be done. Boards of governors can play a role here in ensuring that their institution understands the needs of differing student and staff groups, and that it supports cross-institution collaborative work on equality, diversity and inclusion strategies in line with its mission and values.

All governors will be aware of the toll the pandemic has had on students’ mental health, an impact borne out by the survey findings: student wellbeing measures in 2021 are at their lowest levels yet. However, the size of the drop is similar to the decrease in wellbeing across the population as a whole, as recorded in ONS data. This raises questions around the capacity of institutions to identify and meet student mental health needs and their relationships with local healthcare partnerships.

While the debate around tuition fees is a live one, governors should note that students in the survey were more worried about living costs, cited as a greater concern by more than half of students, a finding which points to the importance of hardship funds and rent rebates – as well as how clear the costs of studying are to students as they apply for places.

Download the full report

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