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Students highlight the challenges of their 2021 academic experience

24 Jun 2021 | Jonathan Neves and Rachel Hewitt Following a year of “major upheaval”, the value students place on in-person teaching is a key feature of the 2021 Student Academic Experience Survey.

The impact of the Covid-19 pandemic on the student academic experience is brought into sharp relief by Student Academic Experience Survey 2021 published today (24 June) by Advance HE and the Higher Education Policy Institute (HEPI), written by Jonathan Neves and Rachel Hewitt.

Key findings from the Survey include:

  • Just over a quarter (27%) of the 10,000 full-time undergraduate students studying in the UK who responded to the Survey felt that they have received ‘good or very good’ value, reversing the improving trend recorded between 2017 and 2019. Forty-four per cent of students report ‘poor or very poor’ value – a significant leap from the 29% of students with that perception in 2019, reflecting the major upheaval in their academic experience over the past year.
  • 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. Despite this, the majority of students – 58% – would still have chosen the same course and institution; 29% had considered leaving higher education with 34% of those giving mental / emotional health as the primary reason.
  • In a new ‘open’ 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’
  • Two out of three students feel their institution is committed in eliminating racial inequalities; though only 53% of Black students hold this view; and a spotlight on specific student groups shows that Black students also have a less positive academic experience than white students.

In previous years, perceptions of value have varied widely depending on where a student is from; but this year, value perceptions are at historically low levels across the board. Students from England (24%) continue to hold the lowest positive value perceptions, with levels also low among students from Northern Ireland (27%), Wales (29%) and the EU (30%). Perceptions in Scotland have also declined and these are also at the lowest they have ever been (50%).

The Survey results indicate that while tuition fees remain the primary consideration associated with a perception of poor value (50%), the [low] ‘volume’ of in-person teaching (47%), the opportunity to access in-person teaching (42%), teaching quality (36%) and the volume of online contact hours (32%) were significant factors influencing student perceptions.

Analysis of open comments in the Survey points towards how much students value place on their on-campus experience and face-to-face teaching and engagement with staff. There appears to be the widely held view that online learning does not represent the value students are looking for. In a disruptive year more students than ever before felt their experience did not meet ‘pre-covid’ expectations. Students said:

“Most courses are around the same price, so quality of teaching is well worth the value, however COVID undermines what we’re paying for because I’m sure in person it would be great, but online isn’t worth £9k+”

“I think many of the disadvantages and challenges I have faced have been due to the Covid-19 pandemic, therefore it is largely out of the universities control”

“Online learning is extremely different to in person learning. Uni was great up until the pandemic hit, although I do still believe the fees were overpriced regardless”

“As I am a practical course, although I understand why we cannot meet in person I believe that my quality of education cannot be what I needed. They are trying their best but there are some things you can't replace online”

“It’s is not the institution's fault if things aren't great, these are tough times for everyone…”

However, where their expectations were exceeded, students reported courses were well organised (48%) and teaching staff accessible (47%). The free comments reflect the very positive effort of staff to respond to the crisis. Despite the concerns and lack of interaction, the majority of students – 58% – would still have chosen the same course and institution.

In a new question for the 2021 Survey in which students were asked whether they had considered leaving their course, 29% said they had. While clearly there is no Student Academic Experience Survey data to compare this to, the same question in the Advance HE UK Engagement Survey (UKES) 2019 for undergraduate was only 2% lower than the percentage recorded here, implying that retention levels may not be significantly impacted at a total sample level. Worryingly, however, mental health was by far and away the most cited reason for this consideration – 34%, with the next most common reason ‘course delivery not what I expected’ at only 8%.

Alison Johns, Advance HE Chief Executive, said, “Despite the extraordinary efforts of institutions and staff over the past year in moving to an online offer, and that of students to adapt their learning styles, this report inevitably reflects the perceptions of a student body who have lived through a year like no other in living memory. We have all learnt a great deal in the past year and we now need to engage and listen very carefully to students when building the post-pandemic recovery and shaping the academic experience, using evidence such as this insightful Survey.

“We should also very carefully consider how we address the widely different academic experience of ethnic groups and the deeply worrying and rapidly escalating crisis in student mental health. We will continue to work hard with the sector to do this.”

Nick Hillman, Director of the Higher Education Policy Institute, said, “This year perhaps more than any other, our joint survey has shown its true worth as a way of capturing students’ real views. In a year when students and staff have faced unprecedented challenges, there are many salutary findings on issues like value-for-money perceptions and students’ experiences against their original expectations.”

“However, the results are by no means all as negative as some might expect. They reflect tremendous resilience, with a majority of students saying they would not change their choice of what and where to study despite all the upheaval. Teaching and learning have continued apace and much of it has evidently been of high quality.”

“We hope policymakers will read the results carefully, including the worrying findings on students’ mental health, and reflect upon them. It would be much harder to tackle the problems identified if higher education were to be defunded at the spending review.”

Download Student Academic Experience Survey 2021

The Survey was designed and developed in partnership between Advance HE and the Higher Education Policy Institute (HEPI), with online panel interviews independently conducted by YouthSight. SAES has been running since 2006 and is widely referenced to support policy and evidence for change.

The student surveys from Advance HE have engaged with over 170,000 students over the last two years – find out more here.


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