Jim is an Associate Editor at Wonkhe

David Kernohan is Deputy Editor of Wonkhe

Ever since the summer of 2020, we’ve seen multiple attempts at polling on post-pandemic blended learning that have been getting closer and closer to telling us what we ought to do next.

This year’s Advance HE/HEPI Student Academic Experience Survey gets closer than most – but sadly we’re still not quite there.

For the first time, the survey posed questions on what proportion of UK undergraduate students’ lectures and labs/seminars took place in the 2021-22 academic year (with fieldwork carried out in Feb/Mar this year).

Ignore for now that at least some students in the sample will not be on “September start” academic years, and plenty of students will be experiencing teaching formats other than something that the survey calls “lectures”, “seminars” or “labs”.

The report says that the results reveal a “fairly even spread” across the proportions of lectures currently being taught online – but for 13 per cent of students, between 91 percent and 100 per cent of lectures were “taught online”.

Meanwhile it says that labs and seminars were significantly less likely to be taught virtually – with 33 per cent of students reporting that none were online, and 15 percent reporting that 1-10 per cent were online. Only 20 percent of respondents said 50 per cent or more of their labs and seminars were delivered online.

The problem is that it’s not at all clear what that that is what the data is telling is. The questions assumed a binary – that something was either delivered online, or delivered in-person. But as we know, plenty of teaching has been delivered in-person and online, where either delivery method can have been synchronous or asynchronous (where we know of tales where some students have turned up to lecture theatres only to be shown videos.)

So when a student ticks that X% of their lectures have been online, that doesn’t tell us what proportion were also available in-person. It also doesn’t tell us whether the student attended them (or experienced/downloaded/watched them), which were synchronous and asynchronous, and therefore stops us from being able to cross reference any of those things with satisfaction, value for money, mental health… or anything, really.

Aside from some local studies that we’ve seen, it really does feel like we’re still flying pretty blind on testing some of the hypotheses that Jim set out this time last year.

Nevertheless, elsewhere in the survey there are some fascinating findings that do point us to some of the things that the sector ought to think about in the coming months.

Je ne sais pas pourquoi

The first question we asked when scanning through the narrative was about bouncebackability. The sector will be “pleased”, for example, to know that value for money perceptions have “revovered” to close to 2020 levels – although when that “recovery” still means that only third of students (35 per cent) feel they have received good or very good value, it’s hardly a moment to break out the bunting.

Given one of us led that first bit of student research for OfS on VFM that Nicola Dandridge used to go on about, it remains remarkable that the market regulator in a fee-dominated system has all but given up doing anything on it – having quietly dropped its value for money strategy when the last one ran out last year.

Various other aspects look to have bounced back too, including mental health – although again, while happiness, life worthwhile and life satisfaction are back up to 2020 levels, they’re still miles behind the general public. The one aspect that hasn’t bounced back is anxiety – as we’ve been saying all year when looking at ONS figures, we appear to have an absolute epidemic here where 4 in 10 students are self-reporting high anxiety, with trans, LGB+, nonbinary, black and international students all significantly above the average, and that showing up as an important factor in non-continuation risk.

We don’t know nearly enough about what’s going on here – one theory on the type of anxiety is that in part that we’re looking at social anxiety, given the other important thing in the data is about correlations between poor mental health and aspects of the student experience. You’d expect there to be a link with things like loneliness, for example, and as such we should probably feel quite ashamed as a sector that in these results one-in-four students were feeling lonely “all” or “most” of the time in February and March, with black and LGB+ students on 3 in 10, disabled students 36 per cent and and trans students on 47 per cent.

But increasingly we’re detecting signals from student reps that while student characteristics and the social experience is a key factor, it’s the actual academic experience that’s another major contributor to making the mental health thing generally and the anxiety thing specifically worse.

Maybe it’s the case that module by module, there are sound pedagogical and EDI reasons for a reduction in exams and an increase in coursework – but anyone telling you that a national average increase from 5 summative assignments per term or semester in 2017 to 6.7 this year won’t be causing a chunk of that anxiety (especially when coupled with the usual miserable stats on turnaround time and feedback) needs to sit and think about mental health in teaching and learning.

That the phrase “mental health” appears not once in OfS’ new B conditions is, in that context, extraordinary. And the report’s recommendation on mental health – that in England the paltry £15 million of Strategic Priorities Grant funding that is devoted to supporting student mental health in 2021-22 be continued – feels quite inadequate as a response. Michelle Donelan’s solution of  effectively insisting that universities install learner analytics systems without providing any extra budget to do so is some cheek.

I should be so lucky

A related thing that is interesting in the figures is the extent to which organised contact with others features in students’ thinking – and the way that links to other aspects or characteristics. Satisfaction with the volume of contact hours, for example, improves quite a bit when comparing 0-9 hours a week and 10 and above.

When students say the experience was worse than they expected, most of the answers are very obviously about the pandemic or broadly similar to previous years. But while last year there was a significant increase in students bemoaning fewer contact hours and too little interaction with other students and staff in comparison to expectations, even now of those saying their experience was worse than expected, we’re still on about four in ten highlighting a lack of in-person, online or 121 staff contact.

And here’s a thing. The more contact hours students have, the less likely they are to have applied for an extension this year.

The danger is that we get caught up in a circular debate about online or not. What’s clear here is that students are expecting more interactive hours where they spend time with other students and academics than they are actually experiencing – and it looks like when they get them, it’s positive for their mental health, satisfaction and (proxies for) attainment.

I wouldn’t change a thing

An especially dispiriting stat that doesn’t seem to be shifting as each year ticks on is the “regrets” question. Here the survey asks students whether, knowing what they know now, they would make the same choice of university and course again.

This has been stuck at 60 per cent or just over for a few years now (59 per cent this year) – and the bulk of reasons why not are about different universities or different courses rather than, say, employment or apprenticeships. It does suggest that our “consumer signalling” and/or transfer arrangements are spectacularly faulty – and that low drop-out rates are as much about the way we trap unhappy students rather than something to be celebrated.

Interestingly, the report narrative notes that results are less positive among second and third-year students, which it says gives a picture of the extent of lasting impact of the pandemic disruption on how the university experience is viewed. This is one of those moments where we’re not sure the “blame the pandemic” game works – having checked previous survey data tables, the decline in satisfaction with the choice of university and course over the period of study was there pre-pandemic too.

Shocked by the power of love

We’re really sorry to do this, but we are about to remind you about Laurence Fox’s “Reclaim” party. Back in 2021 the physical manifestation of divorced dad energy spent a lot of someone else’s money on Savanta Comres polling to demonstrate to his and the Mail’s satisfaction that you are just not allowed to say anything these days. It didn’t do much for his electoral chances, but it does give us a handy baseline for the “freedom of speech” (defined here as the ability to say the most offensive and ridiculous thing that comes into your head out loud) as experienced in wider society.

We can use this to put the findings on freedom of speech on campus from the survey in context. The key figure is that fourteen percent of students surveyed disagreed or disagreed strongly with the statement “I feel comfortable expressing my viewpoint, even if my peers disagree with me” – 64 percent agreed or agreed strongly, and the rest did not express an opinion.

From the Savanta Comres polling we learn that 38 per cent of UK residents believe that most UK residents are “afraid or very afraid” to “speak their minds” at work, 23 per cent are similarly “afraid or very afraid” to do so on social media, and 22 per cent are “afraid or very afraid” to express themselves to their own family or close friends in a public setting.

To be clear, this isn’t exactly the same question being asked – so we can’t clearly draw equivalence. There is, however, at least evidence that we need to compare the experiences of students with those of the wider population before making expensive policy prescriptions. If anything, on the evidence we have, universities seem to be some kind of subtropical microclimate for free speech in comparison to the Queen’s Head, the office or the local Costa.

Not all students experience anxiety over self-expression in the same way. There’s evidence from the survey that students from minority ethnic backgrounds are less likely to feel able to put their views forward – and we also see big differences around belonging. White UK domiciled students, for example, are more likely to report feeling a sense of belonging (61 per cent) than other groups (48 per cent).

One reason for this is clearly that some campus environments do not feel like “diverse” spaces to ethnic minority students. Another may be a ten percentage point difference between the proportion of white and ethnic minority students (73 per cent to 63 per cent) agreeing that the curriculum is sufficiently inclusive and diverse. This feels like reasonable evidence for the kind of critical self-examination among providers that would be facilitated by AdvanceHE’s Race Equality Charter process – although the HEPI/AdvanceHE authored report instead calls for more work understanding whether students may feel discomfort based on their political views.

What do I have to do?

One absolutely fascinating new angle this year concerns employment. The survey asked whether students felt their university degree had sufficiently prepared them for life after university – whether that be work, further study, or other endeavours: 50 per cent of students said they agreed that they were sufficiently prepared by their degree, while 18 per cent disagreed.

Naturally this changed between first and final years – but strikingly, those who tended to do less paid employment during their degrees also tended to feel less well prepared for life after study – so of those who had no paid employment, only 46 per cent agreed they felt prepared, while 60 per cent of those who worked 1–9 hours a week agreed they were being well prepared.

The survey also asked about why students were in work – and guess what. Students from private schools were far more likely than those from state schools to take on employment for the sake of gaining work experience (48 per cent versus 31 per cent), and ditto on the disparity for those using work to explore possible career paths (29 per cent from private schools versus 13 per cent from state schools). Meanwhile students from state schools were more likely to take on additional work to supplement their living costs than those from private schools – 78 per cent versus 64 per cent.

It’s a version of what Jim was getting at here – it’s not that inadequate student maintenance support causes drop out, it’s that it hugely diminishes and restricts access to the “value added” aspects of the wider student experience. That OfS’ access and participation function continues to pretty much ignore this agenda wholesale continues to baffle us – that Wales appears to be about to put it front and centre under the guide of citizenship is very to be welcomed.

On part-time work specifically, the report’s recommendation that careers services should “continue to help students, including international students, find meaningful and manageable part-time employment during their study” feels quite weak – whether we’re talking about employment to survive or to enhance preparedness for post-graduation, the findings signal the need for major changes and strategic action over the way we perceive of “full time” study, and the quantity and quality of part time work available both on and off campus.

Our new colleague Livia has an interesting thread up on Twitter on the former – and Jim wrote about what universities could be thinking about re the latter last year.

2 responses to “Anxious students want to us to help them spend time with and learn with each other

  1. The comment that “we need to compare the experiences of students with those of the wider population before making expensive policy prescriptions.” is the one with which I most heartily agree.

    As the majority of students at University are between 18 and 23, this age group in the rest of the population would seem to me to be the bench marks to which student responses need to be compared.

    I would imagine that the results would show that the University students are doing very well when compared with those of a similar age who are Unemployed, or Apprentices or in Employment / self employment, particularly with regard to the views expressed by ethnic and gender minorities.

    For me, comparing current cohorts of students with passed cohorts is much less important than comparing difgferent current cohorts of similar age.

    The University sector spends too much time on navel gazing and analysing internal issues.

    I thought one of the purposes of a University education was to open up the mind and not restrict it.

    Let’s get real.

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