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WEEKEND READING: Five (other) points to note about our new Sex and Relationships study

  • 1 May 2021
  • By Nick Hillman

There has been a lot of interest in our new report on students’ personal lives – especially the finding that over half of students say passing a sexual consent assessment should be necessary before starting higher education.

This raises lots of questions. Do such tests change behaviour? And if they do, why limit them to people wanting to attend higher education? Many people have asked what the tests would look like – if you’re unsure, take a look at the UCL version here.

The report itself ranged over many other issues, as much of the coverage noted, including: that most students believe their previous sex and relationships education did not prepare them well for higher education; and that students have less confidence with regard to issues of consent after alcohol.

But there were other important points too that remain a little under the radar, five of which are listed below:

  1. The popular trope associating freshers’ week with casual sex is wrong. Just 9% of students had sex during their welcome week. In a list of nine things that might happen during freshers’ week, put to students in a separate poll, only smoking had lower expectation levels.
  2. Two-fifths of female students (40%) say symptoms of their periods may have stopped them from doing their best effort in academic assignments and over one-third (35%) report missing an academic appointment for the same reason. This adds to the growing international evidence base on the issue. As there are more female students than male students, but more male university leaders than female university leaders, our top-level policy conclusion is simply that female health matters need further consideration than they have previously had across policies for working, teaching, learning and assessment.
  3. About twice a year, there are lurid headlines about the supposedly high proportion of students who undertake sex work. Clearly, some students do supplement their income in this way but the pre-existing evidence on prevalence is poor – for example, the data often come from unrepresentative polls primarily about different topicsRather than the oft-quoted 4% to 7%, our results suggest it is more like 1% of students who ‘have earned money from selling sex’. It is possible that the true incidence could be higher than this (for example, if the personal characteristics of students who are more likely to sell sex are different to the personal characteristics of those who are more likely to respond to polls) but our data nonetheless suggest there are no good grounds for taking previous figures at face value.
  4. The picture of COVID disrupting students’ social lives more than their academic lives is partially confirmed by the poll but it is perhaps not as bad in all respects as might have been expected. For example, nearly half of students (48%) express some agreement with the idea that ‘it is easy for me to maintain friendships during lockdown’ (while only 30% disagree). When presented with the positive statement that ‘I am happier with my friends now than I was before lockdown’, the responses split fairly evenly three ways, with broadly comparable proportions opting for the two positive responses (31% either ‘strongly’ or ‘slightly’ agree), a neutral option (35% ‘neither agree nor disagree’) and the two negative options (29% ‘slightly’ or ‘strongly’ disagree). 
  5. The data published so far in the Summary Report is only a proportion of the evidence we have collected. We plan to publish further information, including the answers to some additional questions, and breakdowns of students according to their personal characteristics. This has to be done with care, given the higher margin of error with smaller groups, but it is undoubtedly worth doing. A spreadsheet for the data covered by the Summary Report is already in the public domain and, once the additional research is published, we will put every data point we hold from our survey on our website and invite other researchers to use it (for free).

Finally, we are clear that the polling could usefully be repeated in future. Many of our questions are unlikely to be unaffected by COVID but others, like how often certain behaviours have happened, may well have been heavily impacted by lockdown and the limits on people meeting one another in person. So we hope that other organisations will be able to do their own polling on these important topics in due course or that we at HEPI can return to them again when the world – and higher education – get back to something closer to normality.

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