Here’s what students were doing and feeling in March (in England)

The Office for National Statistics (ONS) has published what now appear to be the monthly results from its Student Covid-19 Insights Survey (SCIS).

Jim is an Associate Editor at Wonkhe

This time the findings cover 12 March to 22 March 2021, but there’s a diminishing returns feeling to the whole thing – the findings that tell us anything are fairly consistent, and the rest suffer from question design issues.

For example – among those who were planning to return to the accommodation they were living in at the start of the Autumn term 2020, 69 per cent “expected” to return in April, and 16 per cent in May.

But when they said “expect” did they mean “predict”, “intend” or “hope they are invited or allowed?

Students are still incredibly lonely. The proportion reporting feeling it often or always stands at 29 per cent, far far greater than the 7 per cent of the adult population in Great Britain reporting the same over a similar period. ONS had reported that “often or always” figure to be 26 per cent back in February – but having spotted an age-weighting problem, it’s now corrected for it – and we learn that the widely reported “1 in 4” from Feb was actually as high as 31 per cent.

From a wider mental health perspective, average life satisfaction scores among students improved, returning to the same levels seen in November 2020 (5.2 out of 10), having been significantly lower in both January (4.6) and February (4.9) 2021. That mirrors the trend seen for the adult population in Great Britain – but average ratings of life satisfaction (5.2) are still significantly lower than the average ratings of the adult population in Great Britain (6.8) over a similar period.

In addition the proportion of students reporting a worsening in their mental health and wellbeing since the start of the autumn term 2020 fell between February (67 per cent) and March (63 per cent) – consistent with the other wellbeing findings. Again, we need to exercise caution here – in February that 63 per cent of students reporting that their wellbeing and mental health was “slightly or much worse now” than in September rose to 69 per cent for 21 to 24 year olds, and 71 per cent for those 20 and under. Sadly we don’t get the age splits this time – just an assurance that the totals are better weighted.

Elsewhere numbers look pretty constant. Active dissatisfaction with the academic experience is running at 39 per cent, rising to 42 per cent for students that aren’t first year undergrads. 78 per cent of them cite learning delivery as a reason for that dissatisfaction, 70 per cent identify access to resources or facilities as an issue, and 50 per cent say academic support is an issue. On these numbers it’s hard to see how government is maintaining that redress for that level of structural, shared ire should be handled through what is ostensibly an individualised complaints regime that students can’t use to argue “poor quality” through, and there’s no sign of OfS riding to the redress rescue either.

On compliance, things also look steady. We’re still only on 89 per cent that would get a test if they had symptoms, and 83 per cent that would self-isolate. Compliance is worse than average for students in halls, for whatever reason. The good news is on vaccines – a Savanta Comres poll for UEL last week had fairly or likely to refuse at up to 13 per cent, but here it’s as low as 2 per cent.

Elsewhere the survey and question design is more notable than findings. We learn, for example, that 23 per cent of students have had a test in the last seven days, and that 73 per cent of them had a lateral flow test. What we need to know is how many should have had a test if they’d been following the guidelines based on their location and campus access – but that’s not a figure on offer here.

We do however get some intention figures. Of those who are not already taking part in a twice weekly testing scheme, just 52 per cent say they would be likely to on return, with a third saying they wouldn’t. It would be handy to know the characteristics of those more or less likely to take part – but for whatever reason we didn’t actually collect the number of students taking part in the pre-Christmas exercise in England, let alone try to work out who was more or less likely to, and why.

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