The Luck of the Draw: The Story So Far on the 2020 Student Experience

The 2020 start of term has been a one-off. StudentCrowd has been actively tracking students’ experience to try to gain some insight into what student life is actually like. Our online poll has captured over 1,100 responses from both students and parents so far. We have also been scanning our student reviews and have pulled together the emerging themes and experiences of this year’s students to give a picture of the story so far.

We asked our site users a series of questions on the split of online/face-to-face teaching, confidence in starting university this year, covid safety on campus, intentions to follow social distancing rules, the best and hardest things this term and whether the experience has met expectations.

So, what are students saying? The results indicate it has very much been a mixed bag. The effects of social distancing and local restrictions on the university experience have been wide-ranging. Some students have been less affected than others. Some have coped better, even thrived, despite the circumstances.

What is also clear is this year’s experience is far more of a lottery than ever before. Under normal circumstances, part of the thrill of going to university is that students get to decide. Students choose the subject, the university and the location that is right for them. A myriad of factors influence their choice, but it is still their choice.

Yet, the university experience that students hoped for has been heavily influenced by factors they never took into account and were out of their control: their chosen universities’ ability to be flexible in their approaches to teaching delivery, the quality of their online and student support services and the clarity of their communication with students have all come into play. Many of these factors are also out of the universities’ control. National social distancing rules, constraints around teaching capacity and form of delivery, and local lockdowns have left everyone feeling at the mercy of a location and infrastructure lottery.

This is reflected in the varied experiences from students:

Were sold F2F teaching. A delayed timetable (issued after halls DD has been started) shows only virtual teaching. Not impressed. Staff are great and happy to help 24 hours a day all week, very helpful for someone isolating like I am at the moment. [Name] has been delivering my dinners almost all week.

Student leaving a review for accommodation in Liverpool

A very beautiful campus with brilliant social distancing measures, feels safe.

Student leaving a review for University of Leicester

Predictably, the two main themes coming out of our survey results are the impact of online teaching delivery and adapting to social restrictions.

The challenges of online delivery

It has been a huge challenge for providers and those in higher education policy roles to strike the right balance between the proportion of online and face-to-face teaching. Teaching delivery is crucial to the university experience. Face-to-face delivery is perceived as higher quality. It allows students to gain hands-on skills in labs and enables students to interact with experts in the field but it also has wider social implications. If learning is online there is a reduced need for a student to be physically present at the university, creating a compelling reason to stay at home altogether. This can have an impact on establishing friendships, gaining independent life skills and the mental well-being of students. It also brings the issues of value for money into sharp relief.

The reported figures on levels of online and face-to-face delivery is certainly mixed. Our survey results show a significant difference in what students are receiving (Figure 1 below). 9.6% of students have been able to access 100% face-to-face delivery, with 14.3% receiving 100% online teaching. 14.8% reported a 50/50 mix of face-to-face and online. The majority of respondents are receiving a blended approach, with 30.2% being offered majority face-to-face delivery, while 31.2% being offered majority online delivery.

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Figure 1: Reported proportion of online and face-to-face teaching delivery

We know these figures are fluid. With more universities seeing spikes in infection rates or adapting to the second national lockdown in England and tightening restrictions in the devolved nations, the proportion of those receiving their teaching 100% online looks likely to increase. We may even see some universities switching back to face-to-face delivery before Christmas. With the recent announcement on the government’s plans to enable students to return more safety for Christmas there will undoubtedly be an impact on levels of online delivery post 9th December.

When asked what had been hard about starting university this year, over 30% of respondents mentioned online learning:

Incompetent online teaching and no organisation.

Paying all this money for a part online experience.

It is so much harder to remain focused and engaged on material coming from a screen; internet issues do not help this at all… This has resulted in significant mental health issues that greatly impact academic performance and personal well-being

No doubt the impact of online teaching on retention of those students finding it hard to adapt to online learning will be being felt in a number of universities:

Left in week three when they cancelled all in person teaching for my course.

Student leaving review for Oxford Brookes University

There are, however, students who are relishing the online experience:

Freedom to learn at my own time.

Online learning has been excellently handled with all resources required being easily available

Student leaving a review for University of Lincoln

Coping with social restrictions

When asked about intentions to follow the rules laid out by the university with regard to social distancing and the rule of six, 87% of respondents reported they do intend to follow them. It is hardly surprising, then, that the second biggest issue noted in the survey was the impact on the ability to socialise and make new friends:

Covid restrictions have made it harder to meet people especially if students don’t immediately gel with their house mates.

Not meeting as many people and having that larger support network.

I am unable to see university friends since I have to do everything from home and online.

I am doing my masters and its harder to make friends as everything is online so most of the time you spend in your own space.

Others simply said:

Isolation

However, some universities are adapting well to social distancing measures:

Lincoln is doing their best to let the first years have a great freshers whilst maintaining social distancing guidelines set by the gov

Really enjoying it so far, even with Covid, it’s still a great place to be, and the other students really put in an effort to socialise, even with the restrictions

Student leaving review for UWE Bristol

When it comes to Covid-19 itself, half of respondents reported that their campus did not feel covid-secure (49.7%), 47% reported the reverse and 3.3% did not know.

What has been the best thing about starting university this year?

The normal start of term themes cropped up in response to the above question: meeting new people, leaving home and gaining independence, and studying a course they were interested in. Some students relished the fact that campus was less busy or noisy. Some students noted they liked the more flexible online learning.

However, just over 30% of respondents reported that there was nothing good about starting university this year. When asked, ‘has the start of term been what you expected?’, 38.2% responded ‘yes’, 55.9% responded ‘no’ and 5.9% were neutral.

With such a large number citing that their experience has been entirely negative, and with over half having had missed expectations of university so far, it certainly paints a worrying picture for the remainder of the year with no end in sight for social distancing measures.

Was it the right decision?

Even amidst the additional challenges of this term, it is heartening that 65% of respondents were still confident the decision to come to university was the right one for them (31.7% said ‘no’, 3.3% said ‘don’t know’).

The majority of students knew starting university in the current circumstances wouldn’t be easy, but they still chose to do it. Most of them have made the best of a difficult situation and have appreciated the opportunity to get on with learning.

As one student reflects:

[It was] not what I expected when I applied but what I expected given the circumstances. Actually, better.

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