Are four in ten students online-only this term?

How can it be that four in ten students are experiencing zero hours of face to face teaching?

Jim is an Associate Editor at Wonkhe

Since the start of the pandemic we’ve had two lots of student polling from the Office for National Statistics (ONS) – one focussed on first year undergraduates, the other on students in general, both in England.

The problem with both is it wasn’t clear if term and/or teaching had actually started in the previous two iterations – but this time the sample is current students from 22 October to 1 November 2021, which I think ought to pretty much cover the vast majority of term dates.

The surprising finding is that 41.7% of students (weighted for age, gender and regional bias) are saying that they’ve attended 0 hours of teaching in-person. We don’t know if that includes hours offered in-person where students have chosen not to go, and PGRs are in this mix, but still. It feels like far more than the mood music issued by the sector. What’s going on on the ground?

We don’t know yet if there is any impact on learning gain – but from a “value” or a “satisfaction” point of view, there’s a 12 percentage point difference in expressions of dissatisfaction with the academic experience between the “0 hours” club and everyone else – 20 percent and 8 percent respectively, with active satisfaction at 63 and 77 percent respectively. That’s easily enough to start to show up in the NSS.

Elsewhere in the data, things look pretty consistent from a few weeks ago. Vaccine uptake looks healthy – 85 percent have had both doses, up from 78 a few weeks ago, and all the usual compliance measures continue to suggest that students are doing at least as well if not better than the general public on compliance with testing and such forth.

Mental health remains a stubborn issue – whatever it is the sector thinks it’s doing isn’t working – or maybe it is and the results would have been catastrophically worse without the interventions. The “out of 10” score for anxiety in the general population stands at 4.1, it’s 4.6 for 16 to 29s in general and 5.1 for students.

It remains the case that the majority of mental health interventions across universities are aimed at individuals – but a collectively highly anxious student body might require different kinds of policy solutions. It’s also worth noting that there’s a correlation in the numbers between dissatisfaction with the academic experience and students self-reporting that their wellbeing and mental health has worsened since the start of term – and both of them have a relationship with that “0 hours” v “some hours” in-person thing.

Talking to SU officers over the past few weeks, what’s becoming clear is that while everyone might agree that a particular individual hour of teaching might work “better” online, it’s the overall patterns of students’ weeks that we lack understanding of.

It’s also the case that the certainty and confidence that senior types are expressing to the media about the format being delivered this term isn’t really underpinned with a proper understanding of what’s actually being delivered in reality within schools, faculties and departments – and in many cases there doesn’t seem to be much “in-year” curiosity or a plan to work out if there’s any impact on attainment, confidence or satisfaction until the end of the academic year.

Surely, in the middle of a giant teaching and learning experience, that would be much much too late to work it out? You might work at an outlier – please correct me in the comments if things are different where you are.

9 responses to “Are four in ten students online-only this term?

  1. Table 7.2 of the latest ONS “Coronavirus and Higher Education Students” survey does indeed indicate 41.7% of the 973 respondents have attended zero hours of in-person teaching, so either universities are providing less in-person teaching than often implied, or students are deciding for a variety of reasons to stay away.

    Table 8.1 provides some corroboration, with 38% indicating their study mainly involves remote or online learning, and 51% reporting their learning is mainly class-based. Aside from noting the word “mainly”, you can’t tell if students responded according to what they are doing or according to what they could be doing with respect to in-person classes. Perhaps it’s Table 6 that is more telling with 19% saying they have no intent to travel to their university in the next two months. Some of these students are on placement/overseas of course, though a further 7% say they will attend campus only once or twice, and 10% occasionally. Without further information all we can conclude is that plenty of students are studying at distance, and will do so for the rest of this term.

    It’s also worth noting that 24% of the zero-hours group are “very satisfied” with their academic experience. Given that 42% report the availability of scheduled live online classes, and 41% report access to pre-recorded lectures/content, both good for accessibility and inclusivity, perhaps some students are just better supported to learn following the Covid investments in online resources. This should be a cause for celebration.

    (Just like last year Exeter is running frequent Pulse surveys to help us understand and respond to student experiences as the year progresses.)

  2. David

    Lots of that makes lots of sense. We also could be looking at a large number of international students not yet in the UK, altho as the sample is generated via NUS Cardholders I doubt it.

    A note of caution – FT UGs only maintain an entitlement to the maintenance loan if they’re (required to) attend in-person…

    1. The SLC formal definition of attendance is ‘Attendance on a course means active and on-going engagement with the activities and learning opportunities made available by the Provider within the course duration, including, but not limited to, scheduled learning and teaching activities.’ They accepted pre-pandemic that physical attendance was not the only measure that a student was engaged in a course.

      People who work in institutions that have swipe card or similar attendance monitoring systems may not be overly surprised by the numbers that are showing as not physically attending.

        1. Yes, but that misses the point. It only really applies if an institution decides to go online. If individual students decide not to attend, and in a lot of institutions there is not an enforced attendance policy, then there will be a lot of non attendance. That will not have been ‘agreed’ with the institution and so will not fall foul of the SLC guidance. The reality has always been that a lot of students do not attend classes and SLC definitions changed to accept this 4-5 years ago.

  3. Done a bit more digging. The ONS has clarified to me that the results of the Coronavirus and Higher Education Students survey *excludes* students currently resident overseas. The 41% cited as those students at English universities having attended zero hours in-person also needs to be qualified. The survey question on contact time related to the previous 7 days only (and not since the start of term) and the 41% figure is produced from the counts that have not been weighted for age, gender and region. When the weighted counts are used, the zero hours figure reduces to 28%. [With thanks to Dr Chris Johnston at the ONS.]

    Jim – your comment about the maintenance loan and being in-person reminded me of the old quip that only medical students meet the minimum T&Cs on hours of study to qualify for a Young Persons Railcard.

  4. Sadly these figures don’t surprise me at all. It is my belief (and backed up by my own research) that the reality is that most Universities fully intend to deliver as much Online teaching as possible in academic year 21-22. And that this will then become permanent. This is a much more lucrative business model for them – more students on roll , less costs. At the moment the depressing thing is that they are succeeding in their aim, and online learning is becoming more and more normalised as each day passes. And the Office for Students, the NUS , Dept of Education, Education Select Committee and any other regulatory body that you can name in the Education Sector are doing nothing effective to stop them

  5. How many universities/courses, given that in a lot of cases that will also have been the local authority’s school half term, had that week (officially or unofficially) as a reading week?

    1. Good question Hazel. The ONS survey ran from Friday 22nd Oct to Monday 1st Nov, and students were asked about their experiences in the previous 7 days. So if w/c 25th Oct was a reading week then there would be a growing impact from the 26th on the results. Many schools in England did indeed have half term starting on the 25th, and there may therefore have been some cases of deliberate reading week alignment or a reading week achieved by unilateral/local action. This said, a quick search seems to suggest those universities openly declaring a reading week had them in either w/c 1st or w/c 8th November, following a start of teaching on Monday 27th Sept. So I’d tentatively suggest that it’s likely there was only a marginal reading week impact on these results. But let’s face it, we don’t know.

      In doing the search it was interesting to see the range of terminology and purpose: published university-wide reading week (eg LSE), delegated to departments (eg Birmingham), renamed (eg consolidation week at Portsmouth, progress week at Worcester, enhancement week at DMU), or just no information.

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