Three in ten students say online learning has had a major effect on course quality

ONS’ Coronavirus and higher education students survey brings us news of England’s student behaviours, plans, opinions and well-being from 4 to 12 May 2021 - and we have some new questions to reflect on.

Jim is an Associate Editor at Wonkhe

This time around students were invited to reflect on their academic performance during the pandemic. There’s a set of “format” questions first – where we learn that since the start of the pandemic (always or for most of the time) 76 per cent have experienced “scheduled live online lessons or lectures”, 51 per cent have experienced “pre-recorded lectures or other content”, 34 per cent have had “pre-set activities (for example forum posts) by a teacher with marking and feedback” and 62 per cent have had “materials available for students to access through a website or email”.

Interestingly, 28 per cent reckon that online learning has had a “major effect” on the “quality” of their course, and a further 28 per cent say a “moderate” effect. If it’s the case that a chunk of contact hours will remain online from here on in, it looks like universities will have a job on their hands to convince students that’s a good idea from a quality perspective. It’s also worth noting that half of all students say their academic performance has been impacted since the outbreak of the pandemic.

As for the rest of the survey, things are pretty consistent. Last month’s results suggested that nine out of ten students were already “at” university in mid-April – and the headline figure of 86 per cent of students in early May living in the same address as they lived in at the start of the Autumn 2020 term will be misread again by the media as 86 per cent back at uni” – but that figure includes people who weren’t “in situ” at the start of the Autumn term and still aren’t.

The important figures are the ones that show the difference between being in an HMO or halls in September and now, and the difference between living with parents and now. As such it’s actually just six per cent that study away from home and were still complying with exhortations to “stay away” – around 94 per cent of students were in situ ahead of the May 17 “on campus” easing.

In truth, if prevalence levels had been an issue in student areas, it’s much more likely that we should have been worried about students studying away from home returning home after teaching all but wrapped up in the first few weeks after Easter, than their return to campus.

There’s a modicum of cheer on vaccines although it may be within the margin of error. Those either saying they’ve had the vaccine or declaring they are “very likely” or “fairly likely” to get the vaccine is up 2 percentage points to 90 per cent, and “unlikely” is down by a similar amount.

Testing in the context of the numbers “back at” uni continues to represent a policy failure – in the week surveyed just 33 per cent had had a lateral flow test.

Those hoping for continued improvements in student wellbeing will also be disappointed – the numbers are all basically steady on the previous month, with over one in five still declaring themselves lonely often or always, and a further 34 per cent lonely “some of the time”. Average life satisfaction scores among students remained stable at 5.8 (out of 10) following the improvements seen last month – but average scores still remained significantly lower than the adult population in Great Britain (7.0).

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