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What our 2020 surveys tell us about how the student experience has adapted to challenging times

06 Apr 2021 | Maddie Pitkin Maddie Pitkin shares insights from the 2020 Advance HE UK Engagement, Postgraduate Taught Experience and Postgraduate Research Experience Surveys.

A sudden challenge to the ways we live, work and study 

It has been a challenging year for higher education, and indeed all areas of society around the world due to the outbreak of Covid-19. The pandemic caused a sudden and huge change to how university students live, study and interact with each other, and both students and staff have had to adapt to the new ways of working which we now consider the ‘new normal’. 

Restrictions on freedoms came into place part way through the fieldwork period for the UK Engagement Survey (UKES), Postgraduate Taught Experience Survey (PTES) and the Postgraduate Research Experience Survey (PRES), all of which launched on 1 February 2020. This meant we have been able to compare the responses we received on or before 16 March (by which time most institutions had moved to remote study) with those we received after 16 March, during the lockdown. 

Survey responses indicate that students and institutions adapted well to the challenges 

Despite the challenging circumstances, overall satisfaction with the student experience at all levels remained high. Among PGRs, those who responded during the lockdown reported slightly higher levels of satisfaction with their overall experience than those who responded before it (82% vs 77%). A significantly larger proportion of PGRs who responded to PRES during lockdown felt that their feedback was valued and acted upon by their institution, and comments revealed positive examples of how staff had gone out of their way to support PGRs. 

At PGT level, there was a dip in overall satisfaction in March and April, but this had largely recovered by the end of May, indicating how quickly staff and students were able to adapt to the changes. Comments highlighted the efforts university staff had made to adapt, transferring teaching online and seeking new ways to keep in contact with their students. 

As well as the pandemic and the challenges it brought, PGTs also frequently mentioned the impact of the industrial action in spring 2020 in their comments, highlighting another challenge to which students, and particularly those on shorter programmes of study such as a postgraduate taught programme, have had to adapt. 

Undergraduate level students who responded to UKES during the lockdown period reported higher levels of engagement in four out of seven areas, compared with those who responded before – it’s particularly encouraging that levels of engagement with staff were greater in the period when most teaching was moved online and highlights how well staff were able to swiftly and successfully adapt to communicating with students at a social distance. 

Students have been able to adapt sufficiently to the challenging circumstances to continue with their programmes 

Prior to examining the data, I wondered whether the challenges brought by the pandemic might have had a negative impact on students’ ability to continue with their programme. However, across all three surveys, lower proportions of students who responded during the lockdown said they had considered leaving their course, compared to those who responded before the restrictions came into force.

This is particularly encouraging because it shows how well students have adapted to studying in challenging circumstances and is an endorsement of how well staff have also adapted to support their students. However, given the contraction of the job market in many sectors during lockdown, we could also speculate that lower proportions of students considered leaving their course because there were fewer available alternatives. 

Despite the clear positives, the challenges of 2020 have been felt 

That being said, there are clear indicators that the challenges the pandemic has brought have been felt by students. PGRs responding to PRES after 16th March were less likely to have received training for their teaching, and they were less confident they would complete their programme on time.  

The learning experience of taught postgraduates was particularly impacted if their discipline relied on resources that were on-campus. The shift to online learning appeared to present a particular challenge to PGTs with learning disabilities. Among undergraduates, those responding to UKES during the lockdown had slightly lower levels of engagement in terms of course challenge, critical thinking and – understandably – learning with other students. 

It’s critical to listen to the student voice during challenging times 

Surveys, polling and student-focused research give students an opportunity to engage in a conversation with their institution. Opportunities to give feedback are part of the student experience – as well as being an opportunity to reflect on their feelings and experiences, they help students to feel heard and that their opinions are valued.

In challenging times, and particularly in times of social distance in which we currently find ourselves, it’s arguably never more important to offer students the opportunity to give feedback, not only because a survey is a way of engaging with students, but also to understand how to best adapt to help engage with and support students.  


Maddie is Research and Insights Executive at Advance HE, working across PRES, PTES and UKES. 

The Advance HE Surveys and Insights Conference 2021: Adapting to challenging times takes place online on 28 April. Find out more and book your place.

Find out more about our student surveys.


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