Final year students are still (feeling) screwed

There's new data out on third and beyond year undergrads. Jim Dickinson tries to work out how raw their deal has really been

Jim is an Associate Editor at Wonkhe

A few weeks back now the Guardian’s Media Editor took a screenshot from a blog and tweeted it out, attracting over 11,000 likes:

What is the enemy of learning? Disruption. Put another way – if you’re trying to identify a group of students whose experience has been completely screwed by the pandemic, I can make a pretty decent case for this year’s third year undergraduates.

They enrolled into 2019/20, during which 74 universities’ staff took industrial action and Covid began – but “no detriment” and “safety net” policies taking account of it all tended to be fashioned around final year students. They were then told to come back in September 2020 only to find that they may as well as have stayed away, and now find themselves being told that as nothing they’ve been through or are still going through can be deemed to be “surprising”, they have to suck it up when it comes to assessment and its regulation – all while the settled and relentless tactic to stop them getting their hands on the piles of cash that universities have been accruing during Covid has been to gaslight them over the maintenance of the “quality” of their impoverished and chaotic academic experience.

As ever in higher education, where there’s spare attention it tends to be fixated on shiny new students – but the lingering question is how students who’ve borne the complete brunt of the pandemic are faring. And having given us some clues on new students back in October, as luck would have it the Office of National Statistics (ONS) now has some answers on third years.

What we have here are results from the ONS Student Experiences Insights Study, a spin-off survey on third and later year undergraduate, home domiciled, England based university students’ academic experience and wellbeing covering 29 November to 20 December 2021 – a joint commission from the Department of Health and Social Care (DHSC), Public Health England (PHE) and the Department for Education (DfE).

There are sobering headlines. 4 in 10 third year or higher students (43 percent) said they felt very or fairly unprepared for their next step after graduating or finishing their degree or course, and 6 in 10 say the pandemic has had a negative impact on preparedness for graduation.

Two-thirds (67 percent) of them said that the pandemic had a major or significant impact on their academic performance, significantly higher than the student population as a whole (48 percent). Around four in ten (43 percent) said they felt fairly or very unprepared for their next step after graduating or finishing their course, and mental health self-perception among this group was worse than both the rest of the population and other students.

Before we get any further here – caveat klaxon. ONS warns us that this survey has a relatively small sample size of 870, and a low response rate of 1.8 percent. Nevertheless findings have been appropriately weighted and there are results in here that are helpfully comparable with ONS’ regular Coronavirus and higher education students series – although that response rate does have an impact on the level of uncertainty of this research.

No more poison

First let’s remind ourselves of just how compliant and helpful this group of students has been over a virus that in aggregate has posed significantly less risk to students than older others. The majority (94 percent) said they would request a test if they developed symptoms, nearly nine in ten (88 percent) said they would request a test if someone in their household were to develop symptoms, and while boosters weren’t available to most of this group at the date of the study, nine out of ten reported having had two doses.

We should worry a lot about their wellbeing. Their results for life satisfaction, happiness and whether the things they do are worthwhile were all significantly lower (and their anxiety higher) compared with both the adult population in Great Britain and all students. In addition they were significantly more likely (46 percent) than all students (28 percent) to say their mental health and wellbeing has become slightly or much worse since the start of the Autumn term 2021.

Killing my emotion

What’s causing all that then? 31 percent of students in general said they were getting “pre-recorded” lectures or other content always or most of the time, but that’s a figure that rose to 47 percent for third years or later.

Those worried about their National Student Survey (NSS) scores will be pleased to learn that satisfaction with the academic experience appears to have bounced back to 2019/20 levels – but satisfaction with the social experience hasn’t quite recovered, lingering at a problematic 41 percent positive.

And you know how we tend to instinctively regard student loneliness as an issue impacting first years failing to make friends? One in five (17 percent) of third year or higher students said they feel lonely often or always, significantly higher than the adult population in Great Britain (6 percent) and students in general (14 percent).

There are still some that think that findings like that are a shame but hey, we all had restricted social lives, it was a pandemic after all. The rest of us know that learning is profoundly social for this generation, so what matters from here is the extent to which all of the above might impact academic confidence and performance.

This group was asked about the level of attainment, such as degree grade or classification, that they expected when they started their course and whether they now felt it was likely they would achieve this – and while half (50 percent) felt fairly or very likely to achieve their expected attainment level, a quarter (26 percent) felt fairly or very unlikely to do so.

I will not be frozen

Now part of the problem with that finding is that we don’t have any comparator data – maybe it’s the case that these proportions of third year undergrads feel confident or not confident every year.

What we do know is the proportions who feel that the pandemic has impacted their expected attainment levels – 58 percent for the worst, 7 percent for the better and 17 percent saying no impact. And that feeling was much stronger among the students who felt fairly or very unlikely to achieve their expected level of attainment – nearly nine in ten (89 percent) of those students said that the pandemic had made them less likely to do so.

A lot of universities – especially those in the more “elite” end of our sector – have tended to stress that “no detriment” policies are unnecessary this year and something of an enemy of academic standards.

But if they didn’t impact significantly on grade inflation when last deployed, and weren’t a threat to academic standards in that period, surely given these levels of academic confidence and perceived impact there’s a decent case for giving third years the kind of reassurance and confidence that they apparently need.

Dancing is my remedy

Similarly, I can make a case for structural (rather than applied-for individual) mitigations when it comes to “attempts”. It is absolutely the case that if every third year student was offered an uncapped extra attempt at any kind of summative work or assessment this year, we’d see a bunch of grade inflation.

But given this is a sector that tells itself and the world that previous grade inflation was about students doing better – ie more students reaching the criterion-referenced standard – it ought to be possible for the same sector to remind everyone of that disruption tweet and say “yes, we’ve given all students extra attempts to reach an objective standard”.

The alternative is to admit that we’re keen on norm referencing after all, but we should surely stop and think about the socio-economic make up of the 17 percent that feel the pandemic has been good for their marks before we do that.

Or instead, we could always plough on, fingers in ears, banging on about our high academic standards, self-deluding ourselves that our return to “normal” assessment rules this year is therefore reliably telling us who’s academically able and who isn’t. OfS and ministers will be thrilled. Final year students will still feel screwed.

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