Students have been returning to university campuses across the UK. This has been, inevitably, accompanied by stories about students flouting the rules: ‘Students locked down after illegal parties at UK universities’, ‘Hundreds of Exeter University students flock to huge outdoor parties until 2am sparking fears lives are being ‘endangered’ on campus’, ‘Coronavirus cases at MMU halls after parties of over 100 people’, ‘Coventry University student flats partygoers flout rules’. It was always likely that groups of students who do not comply with the rules were going to draw media attention.
However, there is more to contend with than tales of freshers’ week parties. Now that university life is back in full operation, there are many aspects that need to be carefully managed over the next few months. Will blended learning suit the needs of students? Will we see a significant increase in dropout rates? What will happen on university campuses if we go into another national lockdown?
Considering these issues has led me to reflect on what we know about students’ expectations of this academic year. Often where drop out or dissatisfaction occurs, it is where expectations don’t align with experience (as we have explored in previous HEPI / Unite Students research). Back in June we polled students to find out their views on how the pandemic had impacted their higher education experience.
When we asked students about their expectations of how the next year would operate, there were some clear groupings. Around three-quarters of students expected increased hygiene measures to be in place, some learning to take place online and social distancing measures to be rolled out across campuses. Over half expected limitations to both their interactions with other students and their access to facilities. Only around a quarter expected limitations to their courses or a delayed start to term and less than a fifth expected all learning to take place online.
A big part of how successful this academic year will be is likely to be based around the success of blended learning. Returning students will have already had some experience of online learning at the end of the last academic year. When we asked students how satisfied they were with their online learning, less than half stated they were – a response that had dropped 7% between when we originally asked the question in March.
Many of us are concerned about what the next few months will mean for students’ wellbeing and the risk of loneliness. Necessary interventions such as the ‘rule of six’ may exacerbate this by limiting the groups students can mix with. Support services are going to be more important than ever, both in being reactive to students’ needs and being proactive to engage students. When we asked students at the end of the last academic year how satisfied they were with the access to support services, around a fifth reported being dissatisfied. More than a third were neither satisfied nor dissatisfied, perhaps suggesting that they had not had need to access these services.
When we asked students back in June about how clear their institutions’ communications had been about the 2020/21 academic year, less than half felt they had had clear communications. It is likely that, given all the work that has been undertaken by universities over the last few months, this will have improved by now. But it highlights that one of the key things universities can be doing as they manage the complex circumstances of the next few months is keeping clear lines of communications with their students, as recommended by SAGE.
Reviewing these data left me with three key takeaway messages:
- Students are realistic about how different university life will be and are prepared for significant measures to be in place for their safety.
- Strong lines of communications with students are going to be key as universities navigate the next few months.
- Blended approaches to learning need to be coupled with blended support services to ensure that students’ mental health is a key priority.