In our polling on non-continuation we found a lonely student body yearning for a more social learning experience.

We covered the main findings in a blog, and there are some slides with key findings and cuts available on the site.

But as well as the main findings, we uncovered a number of other strands of feedback from students in the qualitative comments that we thought it important to air.

One is placements – mark my words when I say that judging by the qualitative feedback in the polling, the lack of availability of promised or implied access to placements of all sorts – public, private, short time, long term, work experience etc – will shortly become one of the major higher education crises of the year.

If there really is a problem we could do with a plan now, and if not we should set straight those students that are panicking that are faced with what appear to be walls of silence.

Learning loss?

Another is disruption to learning. If you blinked a few weeks back you’d have missed some findings from a LSE/Centre for Economic Performance Social Mobility Survey that was undertaken in September and October, which placed a particular focus placed on work and education inequalities of what it called the “Covid generation”.

It found that those from the lowest income backgrounds lost 52 percent of their normal teaching hours as a result of lockdown, but that those from the highest income groups suffered a smaller loss of 40 percent – which the authors said revealed a “strong inequality” occurring in higher education.

We looked at it on Wonk corner, and were concerned about the analysis – there’s a section that blithely converts teaching time estimates into percentage falls in learning and the report repeatedly then refers to “learning losses”. If only it was that simple.

But that got us thinking. Much of the framing of students’ complaints so far has been in “value for money” terms as student “consumers” demand that “Netflix University” should be cheaper. So we wanted to see – in our polling, where students were feeding back negatively about their academic experience, were they telling us about “teaching” (what their university is providing) or their “learning” (what they are getting out of it) – or both? And what if they’re not learning as much as they should be?

We couldn’t really measure “learning gain” pre-pandemic, and we certainly don’t know whether students’ learning has been affected by the pandemic this term generally, or specifically in relation to an impact on particular groups.

But there is a strong and worrying strain of feedback from students in the polling that suggests we may have a major problem when it comes to assessment. This selection gives a good flavour:

  • It’s been awful i haven’t learnt anything lectures aren’t the same nothing goes in my head because I’m not actively learning. They tell you to download programs that benefit people who can afford better laptops! How can I learn how to code without being shown how to do it its a joke.
  • With everything being online, it’s hard to focus on the learning aspect and I find it harder to engage with my lectures and treat the lectures as lectures since they’re harder to focus on.
  • Internet connection means some vital learning is missed.
  • I never know if I’ve completed all my independent learning. I wish there were clearer instructions online on what we had to achieve every week. In class, too, I don’t always feel it’s clear what we’re doing and why.
  • This new way of learning has been extremely overwhelming and not as efficient and impactful as prior years.
  • Online teaching is hardly corresponding to the bar set by ‘proper’ learning (last year, for example)
  • Particular modules could have been delivered to a much higher standard when working remotely. The tutor does not register that many students do not understand the complexity of what he is teaching us. Other tutors found it very difficult to adjust to the virtual learning and would waste 15 minutes of our time trying to figure out how to use zoom each lesson rather than sorting out the issues before the lesson.
  • To make the teams groups small enough we have half the teaching we did last year with the other half reading and videos and whatnot, but it doesn;t work and the tutors try to rush the all the content in half the time instead.
  • Online learning is different from face to face classes. Apart from having too many distractions I cannot focus when learning as well as I do with face to face classes due to my home siutuiation.
  • Online learning has generally gone badly – staff and students have trouble with wifi or using the software, every module/lecturer uses a different type of software that is difficult to get to grips with all of them, I also struggle to work from home and don’t enjoy having to be home all day to complete my work.
  • So awful learning online- too much pre-reading where you are basically learning the module, and the actual lecture doesn’t really teach you at all. it’s all constant breakout rooms, discussions and presentations with no learning. feels as if I’m teaching myself the whole time and I struggle a lot with anxiety which makes presentations and breakout rooms super difficult for me to even join online lectures.
  • We only have three, 1 hour sessions in the university for the whole term. The rest is online and I don’t even get to use the printing beds or other equipment as included in the price of the tutoring. I also asked if I could get a partial refund and they said I had to wait until the term was over. I did and now they’re telling me that they can’t help me.
  • So far we did not have any help from lecturers regarding our assessments. We do not now when they are due and nothing related with them.
  • We were promised a dual delivery but in practice everyone loses as a result of trying to multitask. Students and Lecturers are frustrated alike. As it stands, I feel unprepared for the assessments. One has already been postponed. All in all we lose an average of 40mins each class regarding technical difficulties
  • Lecturers have changed module layouts so we have assessments more frequently. I have received rude replies to emails asking for help from my professors.
  • The lectures are okay, mode of assessment (48hr) is not equitable for students who normally have exam accommodations and the COVID capacity of labs is questionable, it’s difficult to complete group work due to people self isolating etc
  • I know everyone is learning and struggling but there is an unacceptable level of disorganisation without accountability and just excuses from some lecturers. For example, large amounts of pre work at very short notice, no timetable updates until 48 hours beforehand. I don’t feel ready for exams as a result
  • I don’t think much thought has been given to the fact that we don’t have as many exams but much more course work and therefore we don’t have as much time to complete the coursework as others in previous years have had.
  • I’m not learning anything sitting in cold class rooms with windows open and wearing a mask
  • The course does not seem to be teaching me a lot before my first assignment which makes me feel unprepared. However I understand it is more difficult to deliver lessons especially being a practical course

This strain of feedback presents a potential policy problem for the sector. Of course – lots of students have never been students before, and no student on a taught programme has been on this set of modules before. They can’t know if they’re supposed to be able to reach a given standard that’s about to be assessed with this “amount”, more, or less “teaching” (or indeed access to wilder facilities and experiences).

But it’s definitely possible that lost teaching, disruption to that which is being delivered, problems with its delivery and issues with wider types of facilities, experiences and support could contribute heavily to “less learning” than usual.

Usually, students are able to raise – through extenuating circumstances policies – things in their lives that have affected their ability to reach a standard, a process that allows providers to give students an opportunity to later reach that standard if the application to have them taken into account is accepted. But universities maintain that the actual standards of an award or components in it shouldn’t change, and student applications for academic appeals on the basis of the quality or quantum of teaching, facilities, experiences and support are usually rejected. Not to do so would run the risk of disadvantaging other students who passed having had exactly the same experience.

But if educational outcomes take two to tango, and one half of that partnership has found it difficult to deliver to the usual standard – is it reasonable to hold the other half of the partnership (ie the student) to the standard when assessed? We see this raised in ongoing debates about next year’s A levels. In those cases the syllabus has been stripped back, and the experiences of this cohort of students will be taken into account in the design of assessment. This may be the case in higher education too – but it would be helpful to make this clear to students, especially where there may be an impact on professional qualifications.

This feels like a hard science problem that needs to be urgently addressed – especially as the debate over what it’s reasonable to assess GCSE and A level students on intensifies in the months ahead.

Quality matters

Next there’s the issue of feedback and quality. We have a particular model of student feedback in the UK – driven from quality assurance cultures that have been specifically deprioritised in England and are probably not top of the list anywhere during a pandemic.

There are common characteristics. They operate on a “autopsy” model – that invites students to look back so that things can get better for next year’s cohort. We often fail to “close the feedback loop”. We expect student feedback (in module surveys or through reps) to represent general feedback, not individual complaint. We often fail to learn in real time, and course level feedback that concerns central university policies and practices is often lost or takes time to wind its way “up”. And the pace of change is also such that it feeds into annual cycles of quality assurance – improving the experience for next year’s cohort rather than tackling issues being faced now.

But almost all of those features are a problem right now. First of all, we need to ask students not just about what they thought of this term, but ask them what they personally would need to succeed next term. Getting a clear sense from students about the sorts of things that will enable them to do well – even in a pandemic – can only help.

Next, we need to squirrel out from them the things that are not “improvement feedback” but things that are “just unacceptable now”. If we can find students that are not able to access anything, or are being bullied, or whose reasonable adjustments aren’t in place or whatever, we need feedback systems that can hunt those issues down and address them individually. Crucially, all students should be specifically invited to feed back on access issues, from a “digital divide” perspective, a disability perspective, and other angles – and we should follow it all up. Any student not able to access substantial parts of their course should receive immediate attention.

We do need students’ feedback about this term has gone, but to improve for next term, not next year. By January, our ambition should be that every student in the UK should know about the major themes that have come up in the feedback that students on their course have given, and what their university is doing about that feedback. And feedback to students from initial assessed work this term should be handled as carefully as possible – with as much “feed forward” as possible.

Given our wider findings, all students should be polled on the extent to which they feel socially connected to other students on their programme, with those responsible for organising courses taking steps to address poor scores within contact time. Courses with substantial practical or placement components should be reviewed in light of pessimism over social distancing requirements for the year ahead, with as much reassurance to students as possible. And universities should review student access to and contact with personal tutors – and use those systems to proactively gather themed, actionable feedback from students.

I’m no drop out

But the final big issue worth thinking about that comes up in the qualitative feedback is “drop out”. If so many students are dissatisfied with their experience this term both academically and non-academically, and so many are lonely, why were so few in October considering dropping out?

Some will chalk up the percentages we discovered as a success. Others will breathe a sigh of relief, particularly if the numbers we found translate into actual non-continuation. But as well as interrogating why students were thinking of dropping out, we also thought it important to interrogate why they weren’t – and whole much of that feedback was about having a positive experience, or stoicism, or resilience – much of it reads like students feel that they have no choice:

  • I would rather die than go this far into debt and not get a degree out of this
  • I would be ashamed.
  • University is a privilege to me, and has always been something that I wanted to go into. Certain family circumstances made it difficult to confirm that I would be able to comfortably attend, however this has been achieved and I want to take full advantage of this.
  • I’m very determined to have my degree and work for my family.
  • It’s a luxury. I’m the first generation in my family to go to uni, so it’s very important to me. I’m now at my 4th uni.
  • Having paid international fees for 3 years now, it’ll be a waste to drop out of University now. Family is not that financially stable to afford another education.
  • I can’t disappoint my parents, family and friends.
  • Cos I’ve spent so much – tuition rent etc. On uni that dropping out is not an option. Plus I have expectations for myself and my family that I can’t/won’t let down.
  • Because it would be a waste of money.
  • They trap you in to paying so much you’re afraid to give up.
  • I don’t have a choice.
  • As much as I hate it here, I need my undergraduate degree in order to go to a post-grad US School so I will grin and bare it.

In much of the UK we run a market system of higher education, where we present students with what we argue is predictive information about the outputs (here’s what it will be like here, here’s the facilities, here’s what you’ll be taught on) and the outcomes (here’s what students earn, here’s whether they go on and get a job, here’s their satisfaction). Students are supposed to use that information to determine if the course is right for them.

The problem is that the accuracy of the prediction was probably poor this time. As I said back in June, this year there’s an increased risk that some students will decide that their chosen course, institution, or wider student experience, does not meet their expectations. I said then that the information students had to make a decent choice about whether to go or not was hugely restricted because we didn’t know the impacts that the pandemic would have this term.

And information needed to make a decision between providers – like roaming around visiting campuses to get a feel, or relying on their outcomes track record, or knowing how many banking covenants they’re about to breach – was all “choice information” that has turned out to broken, or hidden, or restricted.

Put another way. If providers right now are arguing that they can’t have predicted how the year would turn out and so can’t be held to account for changes, we’re accepting as a sector that much of the predictive information we gave students upon which to make a choice was out.

The counter argument would be that students don’t actually use these things to decide on a course anyway – and advice from friends, teachers, and current students turns up again and again in surveys as the preferred source of information. But if that is really the case, we’ve been spending a lot of money on apps and websites (and a lot of energy regulating in the student interest) that could have been saved.

Either way – we shouldn’t hold students to the commitments they made based on an understanding of what university used to be like, and we should let them drop out, penalty free.

But we don’t. It’s still incredibly hard to drop out around much of the UK. There are direct financial penalties (fee liability), indirect penalties (rent commitments) and the stigma of being seen as a “drop out”. “Non continuation” is literally framed as something bad by regulators and governments.

In wider debates about levels 4 and 5 and lifelong learning and higher level skills, we all wax lyrical about students being able to “step on” and “step off”. If Governments really meant it, wouldn’t we let students step off now, penalty-free, in the hope they’ll come back one day? It would need a massive change in the funding model, but isn’t that coming anyway?

Overall, we should be working hard to ensure that students feel less trapped. If the Fallowfield halls story tells us anything, it’s that sometimes even when you think you’re protecting people, it can feel to those you’re protecting (and everyone else) that you’re doing the opposite.

Download the main results of the Don’t Drop Out survey.

We are particularly grateful to the students’ unions that made the work happen with us – big thanks to the SUs at Middlesex University, Queen Mary, University of London, Kingston University, University of Southampton, University of Sunderland, City University of London, University of Leicester, Bath Spa University, University of Bedfordshire, UEA, Bangor University, University of Manchester, UCLAN, Coventry University, Leeds Beckett University, University of Worcester, King’s College London, UCL, UEL, Canterbury Christ Church, UCB, St Marys University, Twickenham, Oxford Brookes University, Solent University, Southampton, University of Plymouth, University of Sheffield, University of Nottingham, and University of the Arts London.

Trendence is a leading student-focused market research firm in the UK and Ireland.

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