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Did students and universities squeeze through the pitfalls of the pandemic?

How are students responding to the constraints of Covid? ONS has been finding out, and Jim Dickinson isn't at all surprised by the results.
This article is more than 3 years old

Jim is an Associate Editor at Wonkhe

Remember when we tried to think about those two big behavioural balloons impacting student lifestyle this term?

Throughout the pandemic, the Office for National Statistics (ONS) Opinions and Lifestyle Survey (OPN) has been adapted into a weekly exercise used to collect data on the impact of the coronavirus on day-to-day life in Great Britain.

It’s been a fascinating dataset to track, but it’s not been much use for looking at students. ONS has tried – this October release had questions on adherence to testing rules for example, but there were only 20 students in the sample.

So given the specific policy issues surrounding students, ONS has been working on something called the Student Covid Insights Study, and has now published a set of experimental results from a pilot of the survey that takes in students attending four British universities.

Once it’s working properly this will be impressively big – this second four provider pilot has an achieved sample of 4,322 students, with all students studying on foundation to postgraduate level programmes included. (We actually got an earlier iteration of the pilot involving 1200 students from three universities, covering 12 October to 18 October).

These pilot results we have cover 3 to 8 November – although we don’t know where the universities are in Great Britain and so we also can’t set them in context of local/national restrictions at the time.

Mental health

Some of the more eye-catching headlines here involve student mental health. At the universities involved, almost two-thirds (65 per cent) of students reported a worsening in their mental health and well-being since the beginning of the Autumn term.

We are so numb to stories involving student mental health that that might not be a surprising stat. But the wellbeing comparisons are stark – the mean response on anxiety for example is 6.5 out of 10, compared to 4.3 on the same question in the HEPI/Advance HE Student Academic Experience Survey earlier this year and 4.3 in the general population in the same week.

 Life SatisfactionWorthwhileHappyAnxious
ONS Student Pilot Nov 20205.
Students SAES Spring 2020776.64.3
ONS General Public Nov 20206.

65 per cent report a worsening in their mental health and well-being, rising to 73 per cent of non-first year undergrads – four in ten say it’s “much worse now”. Might we have focussed on first years in halls to the expense of everyone else? More generally, governments would all say that they are prioritising student mental health – but this evidence would suggest that what they are doing is not (yet) meeting student needs.

Mixing it up

Most of the questions on gatherings aren’t especially helpful here – and you’d assume will end up reworded for clarity in future iterations (the “frequency with which you have avoided having guests come to your home” is a funny way to express things). But the potential for mixing is laid bare – asked about close contacts with people outside of their household, 19 per cent had had direct contact in the previous seven days, 25 per cent had had contact within one metre and 35 per cent had had contact between 1 and 2m.

Twenty-seven per cent had left the house to meet up indoors with friends or family that they don’t live with. Only thirty-four per cent said they do their extra-household socialising mainly or exclusively outdoors. For almost 10 per cent, the last (indoor) social gathering they were at involved more than six people. And when asked about their awareness of large social (indoor) gatherings of more than 6 people involving students in the previous seven days, 28 per cent agreed that they’d heard about stuff like this – rising to 33 per cent of non first year undergrads.

It’s almost as if, when given nothing safe to do, students end up doing unsafe things instead. Who knew?

Alcohol, and its potential role in disrupting people’s good intentions on social distancing and wider adherence behaviours, has been a particular focus of policy makers and we get a measure of that here. Just 21 per cent had consumed alcohol while out or meeting with others in the previous seven days, and only 16 per cent of them said the booze meant they followed the guidance less closely. Perhaps more worryingly, 19 per cent were drinking alone – and of those that went to a pub or bar, 18 per cent went to someone else’s house or accommodation to carry on drinking or socialising after last orders.

And the rest

A whopping 17 per cent reckon they’ve had the virus – 5 per cent via an actual test result and 12 per cent through a hunch. To set that in context, ONS last week calculated that around 1 in 80 people in England have had the coronavirus. If these students are right it represents a significant policy failure that we ought to worry about repeating in January. Let’s hope and pray that there aren’t long term effects for the young.

Are they getting a test if they develop symptoms? The survey tests intention in this area – 89 per cent say they would get tested, and 86 percent say they would stay at home albeit with some confusion over the 10 or 14 days required isolation (at the point the survey was taken, people were required to isolate for 10 days if they had a positive test, and 14 days if they had been in contact with someone who had a physical test). And 86 per cent say they’d play ball with contact tracers. Other questions surrounding house(hold)mates having symptoms generate similarly positive results – although other studies warn us that intentions are always much more positive than reality.

Christmas is interesting. Of those who study away from home, 7 per cent say they’ll stay at university accommodation, and 29 per cent say they’ll return home following government guidelines – but 33 per cent instead tick that they’ll return home “regardless” of government guidelines. So much for the “Student Travel Window”. And contrary to the binary that frames students either as commuters or boarders, 10 per cent of those with a separate university address travel home during term time “regularly” and 39 per cent “occasionally”. In other words, half have been home and returned this term before that magic window even opens.


Thus far we’ve had precious little data on the amount of F2F teaching being put on, and the amount then being attended. We don’t get any findings on the former here, and the latter could be affected by all sorts of things – but when asked about the previous week, 70 per cent on non-clinical courses had attended either 0 or 1 hours of in person teaching, and 20 per cent between 2 and 5 hours.

If students are effectively barred from campus outside of those hours, you’ve got to question the strength of the “blend” being used to justify making students move to the area to experience it and its magical mental health benefits.

Meanwhile, someone somewhere wants to know if moving teaching online would cause students studying away from home to return home despite “stay put” advice – and ONS provides an answer. 23 per cent in this situation say “extremely likely”, and 17 per cent say “likely”. It’s almost as if decisions on F2F teaching at this point are being taken on the basis of their impact on student migration.

The big rider on all of these results of course is that while the four universities that took part earlier this month represent a cross section of British universities, ONS rightly warns us that that the results can’t be said to be representative of all British students. Sadly, if and when we do get authentically sector-representative results, it may all be too late.

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