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Students: What are the polls saying about the next academic year?

  • 9 June 2020
  • By Nick Hillman

The latest polling of students arrives this morning from Unite Students. A rapid survey of 1,000 people, students and parents, undertaken last month, it tells us some interesting things about what people expect in the midst of the pandemic.

Overall, the results are positive for the higher education sector. The overwhelming majority of students are:

  • itching to get back to campus (89%); and
  • trust that universities will deliver on the necessary safety measures (86%).

This makes sense when you consider that a similarly high proportion (91%) are worried about the disruption to their course and studies from the current crisis.

It seems an accurate assessment to me, not least because it is supported by other quantitative and qualitative evidence.

It is important to note that this doesn’t mean people will be put at unnecessary risk: at the start of the crisis, universities generally discouraged campus activity even before the Government asked them to. So there really are no clear grounds for questioning the general commitment of higher education institutions to protecting staff and students.

there really are no clear grounds for questioning the general commitment of higher education institutions to protecting staff and students

I know some people have doubted this and there seems to be a large amount of unfair scepticism and negativity on social media about the preparations now being put in place for the next academic year – oddly, it often hails from people who work in the sector and who have repelled many of the external attacks on our sector from outside in recent years.

I don’t fully understand the reasons why. If your average higher education institution was happy being a distance learning provider without much in the way of personal human interaction, they wouldn’t have built up such a significant physical and geographical presence in the first place. Now, some of their staff are furloughed, many of their buildings are empty and most of their students are at home. And that is a situation no one wants to continue for a second longer than is necessary. Our previous research with Unite Students, published last autumn, confirms human interaction is central to how young full-time students want to learn and experience higher education.

It is true there is less certainty around currently than is ideal. But there are only two choices when it comes to providing information on the next academic year: guesswork; or admitting the level of uncertainty. Given we don’t even know if young children will be back at school next month and the next university year is still some months away, it seems odd to expect complete clarity now, especially when we don’t know the future course of the pandemic. Like others, I am very impressed by the University of Bolton’s attempt to provide as much clarity as possible and I am sure other institutions are learning from it, but just admitting some areas are ‘known unknowns’ is a good place to start.

There are currently two sorts of polls of students around. The polling being published today is a different beast to other recent – flawed – polls on people’s future behaviour far in the future and it should not be muddled up with them. The new polling asks students for their feelings and opinions about the current situation, which reveals understandable concerns about the impact of the crisis on students’ social lives, future careers and mental health as well as positivity about the future. This is a more illuminating and useful type of research than asking people how they might or might not behave in an imaginary future.

polling which asks people to predict how they might choose to behave at some future date far in the future has a woeful track record in higher education, typically proving to be excessively pessimistic

The noise created by the other type of polling has led to depressing assumptions about how many people are likely to enter a UK university this year and will instead opt to defer. While none of us has a crystal ball, it is worth remembering that polling which asks people to predict how they might choose to behave at some future date far in the future has a woeful track record in higher education, typically proving to be excessively pessimistic. For example:

  • before tuition fees were raised in England, an NUS survey suggested 70% of students could be deterred from higher education if fees reached £7,000 – in the event, fees went to £9,000 and the proportion of school leavers entering higher education continued climbing to record levels; and
  • at the same time, the insurance company LV= claimed half (52%) of younger students would react to higher fees by studying locally and living with their parents, saying towns and cities with universities would become ‘“ghost towns” by 2020’ – in the event, 80% of full-time students continued to move away to study, as before.

It took a pandemic to force many students back home, but this was often against their will: the new Unite Students survey out today shows 79% of respondents think ‘Living in university accommodation and being on campus is as important a part of the University experience as lectures and tutorials’.

The other risk inherent in polling on possible future behaviour that ends up claiming the world is going to hell in a handcart is that it can create the world you are seeking to avoid. In other words, the more people think deferring is normal, the more people are likely to do it and we risk entering a vicious circle.

I am clear in my own mind: if I were 30 years younger and leaving school or college this year (and assuming I were not in a vulnerable category), I would definitely be enrolling this autumn

Ultimately, it must be the choice of each individual if they wish to enter higher education in 2020/21, but we can help inform those decisions. I am clear in my own mind: if I were 30 years younger and leaving school or college this year (and assuming I were not in a vulnerable category), I would definitely be enrolling this autumn. After all, there are far more obstacles in the way of the usual alternatives, like an interesting year of international travel or well-paid work to build up savings.

Hopefully, the new Unite Students poll will have whetted your appetite for one of the biggest events of the HEPI annual calendar. On Thursday, 11 June we will be publishing the HEPI / Advance HE 2020 Student Academic Experience Survey, which covers over 10,000 full-time undergraduates. It is the longest-running, biggest and most influential survey of its type.

All I can say for now is that it is the most exciting iteration so far, partly because of events outside our control to do with the crisis, partly because we’ve cut the data in some interesting new ways and partly because we’ve added some wholly new questions that have turned out to be even more topical than we thought when we originally planned it. So watch this space…!

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2 comments

  1. Robert says:

    Can’t find any details on how the sample groups were constructed. So…

  2. Dennis A. Ahlburg says:

    The polling is consistent with econometric studies in the UK and the US that show student enrollment increases in a recession.

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