They were promised blended. They’re not getting it.

The Office for National Statistics has worrying new findings out on students and Covid. Jim Dickinson wonders if they'll make any difference.

Jim is an Associate Editor at Wonkhe

Blended you say? In one week in the middle of November, the percentage of students who attended zero hours of F2F teaching in England was 65 per cent. And that includes students on clinical learning or training programmes!

But hold on. It says here that UUK says that:

The current public health situation means that most students will experience a blended offer of online and in-person teaching, prioritising safety while ensuring that students can continue to meet their learning objectives and progress with their degree.”

Could it be that what VCs think is happening on campus… isn’t? Or is there some other explanation?

A couple of weeks ago we got some experimental results from a pilot of an ONS survey specifically aimed at students. 4,322 students were surveyed – but the problem was that they were from only four universities. Now we have results from a smaller but much more nationally representative sample – and they are just as startling, and still need a meaningful policy response.

As each iteration of this pilot is released, the survey window of course changes – this time students completed the survey between 20 November and 25 November, so were reflecting on the week before – right in the middle of England’s “Lockdown 2”, with higher education’s exemption supposedly carved out carefully.

What we don’t know about that in-person teaching figure is whether it was on and students chose not to go, or it was on and students couldn’t go because they were self-isolating. But either way, if policy makers were keen to preserve “in person” teaching, this is a straight up national policy failure that deserves interrogation.

It’s getting worse

While we’re on policy failure, as with last time there are some mental health headlines to take stock of. The questions on infection-reducing behaviour indicate that students on the whole are extraordinarily compliant over stuff like social distancing, hand washing and having friends round. But presumably partly as a result, 57 per cent of students reported a worsening in their mental health and well-being since the beginning of the Autumn term.

Again, we appear to be pretty desensitised to stories involving deteriorating student mental health. But the mean responses on all of the usual indicators are significantly worse than the HEPI/Advance HE Student Academic Experience Survey earlier this year and the general population in the same week.

 Life SatisfactionWorthwhileHappyAnxious    
ONS Student Pilot Nov 20205.365.65.3
Students SAES Spring 2020776.64.3
ONS General Public Nov 20206.57.26.74.3

56 per cent of first year undergrads report a worsening in their mental health and well-being this term, rising to 63 per cent of non-first year undergrads – and a quarter say it’s “much worse now”.

If we’d have asked the Department for Education, we’d have got the usual response on “we’ve asked VCs to prioritise it” or “we’ve invested in Student Space”, but the big question now is whether this is a level of poor mental health that is either acceptable or not meaningfully preventable. Everyone is obviously exhausted here at this end of the term – and with the energy left is blaming everyone else. But we appear to be causing active harm here folks.

On that, we should keep an eye on the alcohol numbers. 43 per cent had consumed alcohol in the last seven days, and just under 3 in 10 of them did so alone. Is it just me that is worried about that figure?

Can’t get no

There are, as we know, relationships between satisfaction with “the student experience” and mental health – and here we get some figures on it for both the academic and non academic experience.

This is problematically framed here as “academic experience – learning experience or academic support” and “social experience – sharing time with others, meeting new people or having access to sports and fitness facilities” – because, you know, god forbid that we would ever define anything other than formal teaching and learning as educational. Must be “social”, right?

49 per cent are very satisfied or satisfied with the academic experience, 20 per cent on the fence, and 29 per cent actively dissatisfied. As in both HEPI and our survey work, first year undergrads are happier – 55 per cent satisfied and 27 per cent dissatisfied – but this is still not great news.

Unhelpfully we get an attempt at working out why – but I’m not sure what anyone gains from finding out that “quality of learning” was a driver of dissatisfaction for 64 per cent of unhappy students or that “learning delivery” was a factor for 70 per cent of them. And knowing that “access to studies abroad” was a factor for 7 per cent would only help if we knew what percentage of students had been expecting it to start with.

Things are naturally worse from the “social” perspective. Just 18 per cent are satisfied here, with 53 per cent actively dissatisfied. Whether you put that down to naivety on the part of students, or mis-selling on the part of universities (UK) very much depends where you sit in the sector – but at least the insights here are more actionable.

“Limited opportunities for social or recreational activity” is a dissatisfaction driver for 86 per cent of those that are unhappy, “limited opportunities to meet other students” for 84 per cent of them and “limited access to sports and fitness facilities” is there for 52 per cent of them. I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again – if universities and their SUs can make these happen safely, why on earth is guidance not allowing it to happen?

It’s beginning to look a lot like Christmas

There are more new questions very much focussed on the festive season and online. As in other surveys, just six per cent say they are “unlikely” or “very unlikely” to continue their studies into 2021. Those that do cite financial difficulties (30 per cent), online learning (45 per cent), limited social activities (29 per cent) and physical or mental illness (39 per cent). A quarter tick “university life is not what I expected”.

The enforced shift to online that surrounds the pre and post Chriustmas period is also interrogated here. Shamefully, 16 per cent of students are still saying that they don’t feel equipped to engage with online learning. And 22 per cent of students studying away from home are saying that if next term was online, they wouldn’t return to university accommodation – but are of course all being told to still pay their rent.

As in the previous iteration, we get some insight on students’ plans for Christmas. 12 per cent of those that study away from home are “staying at university accommodation”, 56 per cent will “return home” and intriguingly 16 per cent tick “other”. And fascinatingly, 23 per cent students say that over Christmas they will spend more than two nights away from the place they are staying for the majority of the break – although it’s a useless stat without the context of whether they are commuters or not.

After Christmas, just 51 per cent of “away from home” students are likely to get a test before returning to their studies next term or semester even though they may not have any symptoms. And again, for policy makers everywhere. For students with a seperate term time address, 47 per cent plan to travel between their university and their home address during term time. Can we finally, please put to bed the idea that most students “arrive” at the start of term and “go home” at the end?

Testing times

Finally on infection and testing. A whopping one in five reckon they’ve already had Covid-19 – 6 per cent have had a positive antibody or swab test, and 13 per cent say “most likely but I’ve not had a test to confirm”. If these figures are even close to true, that’s a colossal public health failure – one that is hopefully alleviated only by what we hope is true about the impact (both short and long term) of the virus on the young.

Some important caveats. Students living at home appear to make up more than half of this sample, which is higher than we might expect – and we don’t get other demographic info (how old were these students, what were they studying, and so on). It’s been weighted for gender, which is something.

But let’s assume that the figures are broadly accurate. When the survey went out, students were told:

You will be helping scientific advisers and government policymakers to understand the impact of the coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic on your university experience. Do not miss your chance to have your say!

With plans for Christmas and the new year now pretty much set, and exhausted officials at every level issuing the same lines about these issues, the sad thing about the numbers is that it’s hard to believe much will change as a result of them. But there are major problems here – with what students are experiencing, the impact of the way it is being delivered on their mental health, and the public health plans that are supposedly designed to stop spread both between non-student and student areas, and within them.

As we all look forward to vaccination, it’ll be important to remember that decision makers can do something about lots of the above before next Easter – but only if they choose to.

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