Jim is an Associate Editor at Wonkhe

If the National Student Survey is like the Oscars, I tend to think of the HEPI/Advance HE Student Academic Experience Survey more as the Golden Globes of the season.

It’s smaller, quirkier, a bit less staid, and while it has also been tracking some useful measures across its fifteen years in existence, it’s also able to ask new and interesting things every year. And crucially, it provides clues as to what we might see in the NSS in the summer.

It’s not good news, folks.

This year the proportion of students who feel they have received good (or “very good”) value has collapsed to just over one in four, while 44 per cent of students say their course has represented “poor” or “very poor” value for money.

It must be the restrictions to in-person, right? Sort of. When asked “why” during the fieldwork back in February and March, the volume of in-person contact hours and (lack of) in-person teaching did come near the top. But so did the volume of online contact hours, teaching quality, (lack of) course facilities / resources, and assessment feedback.

Generally students would have preferred in-person teaching, and fed back that they missed in-person interaction with staff and other students. But the volume of student-reported contact hours regardless of delivery method fell too – from 14.6 hours a week last year to 12.4 hours this year.

Thousands of students said that the lack of field trips, placements and practical elements such as lab work had impacted the quality of their learning, with students saying they had missed out on what they regard as essential aspects of their learning experience. Placements and fieldwork made up 4.9 hours a week of an average UK undergraduate’s workload in 2019 and 2020. That was down to 3.6 hours this year.

Students weren’t totally unreasonable or unrealistic. For example, fewer students this year expected their assignments to be returned within one week, which was matched by an increase in those who saw two to three weeks as reasonable. But over one in four students said they had to wait three weeks or more to get marks back on average – a significantly increased number of students’ expectations were not met.

Given the pandemic itself, the way it has been handled by governments (especially in relation to higher education) and the resources available to providers, maybe what amounts to a pretty shocking set of results for the sector was inevitable. But should we just write the year off as a bad dream, salvaging scraps of flexible learning for the autumn – or do the figures amount to something more important to reflect on and worry about?

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Value judgements

As in previous years, what we have here is the collected views of circa 10k full-time undergraduate students studying in the UK around three months ago. New for 2021 is some supplementary weighting on the data – ethnicity, domicile and type of school attended have all been addressed following feedback.

On value, the authors say the results show a decrease in positive perceptions driven by the absence of in-person teaching, and associated worries about access to the right kind of resources, experiences and learning support – all underpinned by concerns about the level of tuition fees being charged. Overall teaching intensity – comprising the number of hours teaching offered and time with staff – has also long been shown to contribute to the overall view on value, and that’s especially true this year.

As the report notes, when discussing value it is common among sector commentators and policymakers to refer to it as being intrinsically linked to student outcomes. But the results from the survey show another view of value held by students themselves – a relationship between how much they are paying and how they are being taught, alongside the opportunities they can access.

This shouldn’t be a surprise – as the first ever bit of research that the Office for Students commissioned told us back in 2018, for students it’s about the outputs not the outcomes. And before anyone scrolls to the bottom to barely disguise a comment that effectively says “well this is why students are wrong about value”, tell me again why we would spend money on outputs that don’t relate to outcomes?

Some of the change is clearly about expectations. The proportion whose experience was worse than expected doubled from 13 per cent to 27 per cent, mirrored by a similar fall in the number of students whose experience had been better than expected. Why? Well as we found last October, the absence of opportunities to interact with others was the biggest factor, although interaction with staff was up there too, and half whose experience was worse said “they did not receive enough support related to the pandemic.”

We should be careful about an oversimplification that suggests that this is all about the pandemic and reduced in-person experiences. One in five of those with 0-9 scheduled contact hours (online or in-person) were positive about value, rising to almost 30 per cent for those on 10-19 hours and almost 40 per cent for those on 20-29 hours. And on mental health perceptions, negative “life satisfaction” and “life worthwhile” scores look linked to scheduled contact hours.

It wasn’t all bad news – the availability and responsiveness of staff, the flexibility of watching recorded lectures, the efforts of teaching staff to rapidly respond to changes and efforts to make up for missing practical components were all appreciated. But there’s no getting away from it – the picture is pretty grim. As one student put it:

As I am on a practical course, although I understand why we cannot meet in person I believe that my quality of education cannot be what I needed. They are trying their best but there are something you can’t replace online.

Happy trappy?

As ever there are fascinating results on choice. This year when asked whether they would make the same choice again, just 58 per cent said yes – 11 per cent would have deferred, and the rest would have chosen a different university, a different course, both, or some other option like employment.

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Some will hail that figure, along with the relatively low drop-out we’ve seen so far, as evidence of success. But as the report notes, it’s not like there were really many alternatives – and given that one-in-three considered leaving their course (rising to 43 per cent of disabled students), you get an overriding impression of students trapped both conceptually and, in many cases at various points, literally.

It’s all underlined by student wellbeing measures at their lowest levels on record, with all four measures falling significantly. Of course the wellbeing of the total population has been impacted significantly too, but the report argues that the absolute levels point towards a situation that has significant implications for specialist support levels within institutions, as well as wider support networks and the NHS. Student Space having its funding extended for a year isn’t going to cut it, if that even happens.

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One curiously interesting finding is the continued increase in assessment load – the number of assignments that students report having to complete has been increasing for a few years now, and this has continued with the volumes of both summative and formative assignments reaching their highest levels to date. That’s probably about a switch from exams to coursework – but signals a need to be careful about the workload implications of such a switch.

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Any ideas?

The authors have helpfully included a box enabling students to make improvements suggestions for September. “Provide more in-person teaching/on-campus activities” was inevitable, “more opportunities for students to engage with each other” unsurprising, while “improve feedback provided to students” is perhaps more surprising (although in truth is a hardy perennial). “Improve communication with students” might more reflect the way changes have had to implemented at pace, and “improve the quality of online teaching” suggests there’s a way to go on design:

Most comments on this theme related to the poor quality of online content…. included the design of content that was too dense, too lengthy, not engaging and / or not up-to-date. In some instances, comments referred to the use of substandard devices such as microphones or poor internet connections.

One classic bit of “don’t misread what they’re telling you” comes in this section – where the report notes that “respondents shared their wish for more online contact time”, and even concludes that

…where online is used, live lectures seem to be preferable to pre-recorded content, highlighting the importance of engagement between staff and students in the learning experience.

If you’re in a pandemic and not allowed to leave the house, it’s true that “live online” will be preferable to a “box set” of lectures and a reading list. See also theatre. But travelling half way around the city, country or world only for half of your teaching to be online only is unlikely to be quite so supported if restrictions are all but lifted in September. See also theatre.

Tackling the mismatch

The message the sector would like us to take away today is that the pandemic did it. The UUK press quote says:

“Significant restrictions have severely limited the in-person teaching, support and non-academic activities that universities have been able to offer – with much provided online instead.

And the OfS quote isn’t hugely different:

It is clearly of concern to see such a significant increase in the number of students saying that their course presents poor value for money – largely driven by the limited availability of in-person tuition.

The DfE quote shamelessly re-promotes the £85m in hardship funding, but this appears to be the first Michalle Donelan press quote all year that omits the “quality and quantity” line when asked about fees and value. I wonder why that might be?

In the foreword, Advance HE chief executive Alison Johns says that the findings will be “disappointing to the sector”, though “perhaps not entirely unexpected”. She adds that despite the extraordinary efforts of institutions and staff over the past year in moving to an online offer,

…nobody can seriously entertain the idea that the student experience in 2020–21 was anywhere near what they might have expected at the outset of their studies

Johns is almost certainly right – but there’s a problem here, because a lot of people have been entertaining the idea. Students have been told all year that they were actually warned about how the year might turn out, that their experience has in fact been comparable, and that their learning outcomes have in fact been met.

Yet what students have collectively described here is a failure – not just on what some have described as “the social side”, but a failure to deliver the education that was advertised, expected and quality assured. Call that consumerism if you like, but if the opposite is the divine right to make and then break promises to students, then it’s not quite the promised land I’ve been told it is.

There’s little doubt that universities got much more than they paid for when it comes to the efforts of their staff to deliver it, but in the end students got much less than they paid for – and a bunch of both mental health and financial problems chucked in to boot.

The danger with the results – as UUK, DfE and OfS all agree that the pandemic has been horrible – is the implication is that students who are nevertheless upset about “value” are effectively accused of complaining about an airborne virus. We should be careful about that. They’re complaining about promises not being met, various aspects of “equivalent” delivery not, in fact, being “equivalent”, the “quality” and “quantity” of provision not being as it should have been, practical components being missing, and no real redress being available. They’re complaining about their education.

We might not have known about the extent of the restrictions coming, but this is a story we knew was coming before the year kicked off, one we’ve been conscious of during the year, and is now being confirmed by end of year surveys that tell us that the issues aren’t one-off or specific to small groups – they’re collective, and systemic. The idea that should be solved through existing complaints systems is deeply insulting and ought to have been condemned by all concerned from the outset.

Monitoring the situation

The bigger problem is the ministers and the monitoring. Every time Michelle Donelan has answered a question in parliament or the press for months on end, she has argued that the government’s clear and stated expectation is that universities should maintain “quality and quantity”. Regardless of whose fault it is, that hasn’t happened.

She has assured anyone that will listen that steps have been taken to ensure that “all students, regardless of their background, have the resources to study remotely”. Regardless of whose fault it is, that hasn’t happened either.

When she first took up post, the rumour goes that Michelle Donelan was flabbergasted that regulating universities didn’t actually mean visiting them. Since, she has reassured MPs, students and their families that OfS has been “taking very seriously” the potential impacts of the outbreak on teaching and learning, and has been “actively monitoring providers” – all to ensure that they “maintain the quality” of their provision. Regardless of whose fault it is, that hasn’t happened – either the monitoring or the maintenance.

In the media, we are told that OfS CEO Nicola Dandridge will use her speech to HEPI’s annual conference to look ahead – urging universities to plan for face-to-face teaching in the autumn whilst being clear to students that some teaching may need to move online if pandemic restrictions are re-introduced. But that is almost exactly what she said last year. What we’re not seeing – from the regulator, the minister, or the sector – is any real acceptance to students that they didn’t get what they were promised and that both they and their education has been damaged. Instead, we’re effectively telling them they don’t get it.

Yes, as we have done on the site before, we can argue about outcomes versus outputs, or fee rebates versus cash grants, or the ineffectiveness of an outcomes-based regulator during a global pandemic, or “what they’re actually paying for”, or whether we should have oversold last summer, or whether we should ever have ended up in a position where universities are pointing at governments and governments are pointing at universities when students say they’ve been badly treated.

The problem is that normally, just as it becomes clear to home graduates that the “balance” figure on their loans statement will never be cleared and that their loan is, in fact, a 30 year tax, they at least have the best years of their life to look back on and personal and social growth to be grateful for – so they support the system they experienced.

As the Treasury prepares to raid their pay packets in their twenties and extend the payment period from 30 years to 40, we almost certainly shouldn’t bank on Generation Covid’s support in the future. We couldn’t even give most of them a graduation.

3 responses to “Universities got more than they paid for. Students didn’t.

  1. interesting that you indicate some students would have opted to go into employment than to HE – I would have thought those opportunities would have been even more limited and not necessarily of the nature that would enable us to live well, save, avoid debt and provide opportunities for intellectual growth/life skills – those options simply aren’t there at present. While I agree unis may have under – delivered to students against our original expectations (because did we really adjust them in the light of the pandemic?), our general expectations of life/society have been severely curtailed – very few are getting what they believe they expected/deserved/paid for in all aspects of life. Continually pushing a reductive consumerist argument is not going to help any of us find productive and collective solutions and only fuels anger, defensiveness and worse still, stasis.

    1. They still don’t get it, regardless of pandemic the fees are paid for a specific item, an education. If you bought a sofa in the pandemic you still expect and should receive a sofa, not half a sofa and a complaint that you are expecting too much. If education is a business it needs to act like one!

  2. @Valerie Masters: you should be writing Wonkhe features. The only thing to add is that surveys of university students in other countries (eg the USA) report the similar or worse findings. There have actually been studies that have investigated the determinants of student (dis)satisfaction scores during the pandemic. Universities with strong course structures (eg clarity of assessment criteria, promptness and quality of feedback, availability of staff to explain things) have generally done best.

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