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"The governor view" - Mental health support emerges as a key factor in the student experience

Advance HE student engagement and experience surveys, which have gathered responses from more than 170,000 students over the last two pandemic-hit years, provide a wealth of evidence about the experiences and perceptions of undergraduates and postgraduates in this difficult period. Understanding the key issues for students enables senior leaders and governors to better address their needs and better anticipate potential challenges.

UK Engagement Survey (UKES,) for undergraduates, the Postgraduate Taught Experience Survey (PTES) and the Postgraduate Research Experience Survey (PRES), allow students to give feedback about learning and teaching and the campus experience, supervision, and the research environment.

A key theme to emerge from all three surveys is the importance of student mental health and wellbeing: perhaps not a surprising finding given the considerable impact of the pandemic on myriad aspects of students’ lives over the last 18 months. 

The main or most recent reason students gave in all three groups for considering leaving their university was mental/emotional health problems, with undergraduates and postgraduates in pre-92 universities most likely to cite this.

The surveys also reveal a positive relationship between overall student satisfaction levels and students’ perceptions of feeling supported through personal tutors and student support and counselling services.

The overarching lesson is that improving mental health and wellbeing provision is likely to have a positive impact on student satisfaction and retention.

Students’ comments in the survey help to pinpoint areas where more focus is needed. Key themes included inconsistency of mental health and wellbeing provision, and inadequate communication. Many students asked for improved consistency of support and wanted services to be more proactive in their follow-ups with students who had contacted them and were in crisis.

Postgraduates in particular, reported poor communication, lack of care, and uninterested and uncontactable tutors. Many taught postgraduates wanted more support sessions, while some postgraduate researchers reported a less-than-positive environment where mental health issues and wellbeing issues were underplayed. One struggling student complained they were told “a PhD is supposed to be hard”.

What was clear across all three groups was the importance of mental health and wellbeing to the student experience and the need for institutions to improve communications on what support is available and how to access it. Students wanted more consistency, so a positive experience was not predicated on just one particular member of staff going above and beyond.

According to a recent report for the Nuffield Foundation from King’s College London Policy Institute (see Advance HE governors News Alert), the number of staff dealing with the “student experience”, including welfare workers, has more than doubled since 2005/06. At the same time, the number of non-academic managers had increased by 60 per cent to more than 50,000. The figures show that university spending on student services has risen significantly in the last decade in response to these growing concerns about student wellbeing but despite this, consistency and communication is still perceived as an issue.

Students responding to the Advance HE surveys were also asked specifically about their experiences during the pandemic and the extent to which they agreed that Covid communications were appropriate and clear; that their university had worked to ensure quality of academic experience; and that they had received the support they needed.

Undergraduates scored their institutions lower on each measure than postgraduates did, with the most positive responses coming from PGT.

Despite this, postgraduates cited a lack of tailored communications. Many emails during the pandemic were aimed at undergraduates and had a one-size-fits-all approach. This meant PGs were bombarded with information that was not relevant to them and struggled to find PG-specific information. PGs said this made them feel ignored and less of a part of the university community. The take away for governance is that tailoring information to specific groups/types of students goes a long way to helping them feel valued and catered for, which in turn is likely to enhance engagement.

Younger students (under 21) felt least satisfied with support and communications. Issues emerged beyond the teaching and learning experience, with references to accommodation problems and loneliness during the pandemic. They also cited a lack of support for study skills.

The perception that institutions had worked hard to ensure academic quality had the strongest correlation with student satisfaction, a finding that governors will want to note as the pandemic continues and universities move once again through an uncertain winter.

The experience of moving to mostly or completely online teaching and learning inevitably changed staff and student interactions and led to a number of negative consequences, according to the survey findings.

Learning remotely meant less time in taught sessions; students perceived a fall in the amount of teaching.

For many students, in-person taught sessions provide a real structure to their studies and motivation to learn; impacts which they found difficult to replicate with online teaching. For instance, confidence in independent learning fell significantly in PGT students.

Some lecturers adapted much better than others to the switch to online learning. For some, not having the confidence or skills to curate or run online learning in a way that suited how students wanted to learn had an effect on the level of engagement and activity. The key lesson is that while many innovative approaches to online teaching have been introduced in response to the pandemic, the picture has been variable.

The shift online has lost much of the casual social and emotional connection and everyday social interaction that can play an important part in engagement. It was clear from comments that many students rely on peer to peer discussion to better understand learning materials. Students perceived that their professional skills development was negatively affected, including giving presentations, working with others and developing work at PG level.

For leadership and governance teams, the survey findings are a timely reminder of the vital importance of in-person teaching for the majority of students. Online teaching and learning policies and contingency plans also need to make clear the need for teaching staff to encourage mutual support among students and provide opportunities for more informal academic connections. This necessity is particularly important where students have not had the opportunity to come to campus or meet classmates, as was the case for many freshers in 2020.

However, the online experience was not negative for all students. Some welcomed the shift to remote learning, such as those with caring responsibilities and commuting students. Responses around online access to T&L resources were also mainly positive.

This appears to be reflected in the latest data from UCAS, showing record numbers of undergraduates applying for places in 2021. A level grade inflation, fuelled by the switch to teacher assessed grades during the pandemic, brought an 11 per cent increase in recruitment at high tariff universities, the figures show. The data also shows that the number of 18 year olds securing their first choice of course rose from 74 per cent in 2019 to 81 per cent this year.

However, a 15 per cent rise in the number of 18 year olds choosing to defer in 2021 suggests some continuing uncertainty over the student experience. From a governance point of view, the rise in the number of deferrals adds to an already unpredictable picture around school exams in 2022 which could potentially make next year’s admissions round even more complex and competitive.

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