University has been a lonely place for students – Survey

Almost one in four students at universities in the United Kingdom felt lonely “most” or “all of the time” and just 35% responding to a national survey reported getting “good” or “very good” value for money.

The results in the 2022 Student Academic Experience Survey show “encouraging signs of recovery from the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic”, according to the authors of a report on this year’s findings, Jonathan Neves and Dr Alexis Brown.

But the so-called “bounce back” reveals how low student satisfaction fell during the height of the COVID-19 pandemic.

A total of 10,142 students responded to the latest annual survey conducted by Advance HE – a sector-owned charity focusing on enhancing teaching and learning, governance and leadership and tackling inequalities – and the Higher Education Policy Institute (HEPI).

The results were unveiled at the HEPI 2022 annual conference held in London on Thursday 9 June.

Value for money

Overall, 35% of respondents reported “good” or “very good” value for money, compared with 27% last year when students were growing weary of COVID-19 restrictions and the switch to online learning.

A comparison between students from the different nations making up the United Kingdom showed Northern Ireland students giving their university experience the lowest value, with just 28% saying it was “good” or “very good value”, up only 1% on 2021.

Scottish students were the most satisfied, but they don’t pay tuition fees to study at Scottish universities; and even here only 48% thought they were getting value for money. That’s a figure that’s been steadily falling since 2019, when the figure was over 60%.

In England, 34% of students surveyed felt they were getting value for money, up from 24% last year. The comparative figure for students in Wales was 40%, compared to 29% in 2021.

Teaching quality and cost of living

Major factors cited by students when asked whether they were getting value for money were tuition fees, teaching quality and the cost of living, the latter two both being of greater importance than reported in last year’s survey.

The cost of living was mentioned by 42% of disabled students, compared with 34% of students not declaring as disabled.

Overall, when asked which costs associated with studying most concerned students, over twice as many said the cost of living (52%) compared with the cost of tuition fees (23%).

One in four students is lonely

The 2022 survey asked questions about loneliness for the first time and found nearly one in four (23%) reported feeling lonely “all” or “most” of the time.

This compares with only 5% of the general population reporting that they felt lonely “often” or “always”, according to an Office for National Statistics, Coronavirus and Loneliness, Great Britain survey, conducted between 3 April to 3 May 2020, in the early days of the COVID-19 pandemic.

The Student Academic Experience Survey report said the results showed that “university has been a lonely place for students in the last year, even as restrictions have lifted”.

The report noted: “Feeling lonely all or most of the time was a particular problem for black students (31%), LGB+ students (30%), students with a disability (36%), and trans students (47%).”

Among its conclusions and recommendations, the report said the levels of loneliness recorded by students were significantly higher than in the general population, even during the depths of the COVID lockdowns last year, and pointed out that other studies had also shown that “adolescents were more likely to experience high rates of depression and most likely anxiety as a result of the pandemic-related isolation”.

The report urged the UK government to continue to invest in student mental health in future years after the Westminster government pledged £15 million (US$18.8 million) in strategic grant funding devoted to supporting student mental health in 2021-22.

Students call for prompt feedback

The report also called for an increase in overall grant funding per student to tackle complaints from many students, including the need for faster marking and feedback.

Student comments ranged from “Give faster feedback so we can gauge how well we’re doing” and “More in-depth feedback on assignments. It’s always very broad” to “Stop blaming things on COVID”.

Many students were also frustrated by ongoing strike action and industrial action by academics this year, but some showed a degree of support, with comments such as “Pay the staff and listen to their demands … so we don’t miss out on more teaching hours”.

Perceptions are ‘recovering’

Alison Johns, chief executive of Advance HE, said she was pleased to see that, overall, perceptions of value are recovering, though it is clear from the detail of the report that some groups do not enjoy the same experience as their peers.

“The evidence of poor mental health remains a significant worry,” she said, urging the sector to share evidence of good practice in supporting students.

She also noted in the foreword to the report that with the return to more face-to-face teaching, students are “increasing scrutiny of in-person teaching quality, assessment and feedback, and of programme and course administration”.

Good student services cost money

Nick Hillman, director of HEPI, told University World News: “It is vital that higher education and institutions are protected against the worst excesses of the cost of living crisis because good student support services cost money.

“As for the sector, it must ensure the new era of blended learning is a route to students doing a greater volume of effective academic work rather it being used as a reason to reduce student engagement.”

He also called for better information for applicants so that they can make better decisions about where to live and to support an understanding that “the provision and quality of social spaces is key to reducing loneliness”.

And he suggested that universities introduce an induction programme for every year of study, something like “re-fresher weeks”.

Hillman told University World News that while he was not happy that just 35% of students responding to the survey think their experience was good value, the trend compared to last year is moving in the right direction and “the proportion of students saying they are getting good value has overtaken the proportion who are saying they are getting poor value”.

He said HEPI had been tracking mental ill-health among students and staff for many years and included the question on loneliness in this year’s survey because they were worried about the issue; but he pointed out that dropout rates fell during the COVID-19 crisis and that while students had faced challenges studying during the pandemic, the alternatives to higher education “were not as good as normal either”.

Hillman claimed the overall story from this year’s survey was “undoubtedly a positive one about recovery”, but he added: “It is a tough time to be a student, with cost of living rises, mental health challenges and worries about the future.”

Nic Mitchell is a UK-based freelance journalist and PR consultant specialising in European and international higher education. He blogs at www.delacourcommunications.com.