This year’s National Student Survey (NSS), published by the Office for Students (OfS) today, shows a drop in the number of students feeling positive about their course during the Covid-19 pandemic.
Overall, 75 per cent agreed that they were satisfied with the quality of their course, down from 83 per cent last year.
The findings also highlight concerns around the availability of learning resources, and mental health support.
Running from 6 January to 30 April 2021, the survey had responses from 332,500 mainly final year undergraduate students at UK universities – a 69.3 per cent response rate – who were asked about a range of issues related to their academic experience, including teaching, assessment and feedback, and how well courses were organised.
The OfS states in an accompanying insight brief that while the data “cannot tell us whether the fall in NSS agreement rates is due to the pandemic”, it considers this “the most likely” explanation, pointing to the previous stability of NSS results, the “exceptional changes” to higher education since March 2020, the fact that the fall in agreement rates is confined to students who would usually be studying face-to-face, and students citing the pandemic as a negative aspect of their experience.
It says that, due to the exceptional circumstances in which the data was collected, “it should be used with sensitivity and caution. The decline in positive responses to the summary question at a provider level, for instance, could be short-lived, and might rebound once the pandemic eases. Prospective students wanting information about a specific course should bear in mind that these figures represent a snapshot of the student experience at a particular point in time.”
NSS 2021: Key findings
Students were asked about the availability of learning resources. According to this year’s results:
- 72 per cent agreed that IT facilities supported their learning well – compared to 83 per cent last year
- 75 per cent agreed that library resources (books, online services, learning spaces), supported their learning well – compared to 87 per cent last year
- 74 per cent agreed that they were able to access course-specific resources (equipment, software, facilities), compared to 87 per cent last year.
- The following subject areas saw a particularly sharp decline in numbers saying they definitely or mostly agree: agriculture, food and related studies; architecture, building and planning; design and creative and performing arts; geography, earth and environmental studies; language and area studies; and media, journalism and communications
Students were overall positive about their teaching, though there was a drop compared to 2020:
- 84 per cent agreed that staff are good at explaining things – compared to 89 per cent last year
- 78 per cent agreed that staff have made the subject interesting– compared to 82 per cent last year
- 81 per cent agreed that their course was intellectually stimulating – compared to 84 per cent last year
- 76 per cent agreed that their course challenged them to achieve their best work – compared to 80 per cent last year
In addition to the core 27 questions, this year’s NSS also included six Covid-related questions to discover the impact of the pandemic on students’ experiences. These were answered by 184,964 students:
- 73 per cent of students said they received useful information about changes to their course during the pandemic
- 42 per cent of students agreed that their university or college took sufficient steps to support their mental wellbeing
- 80 per cent said their university or college has taken sufficient steps to protect their physical safety (providing protective equipment, social distancing on campus, offering distance learning opportunities)
- 48 per cent said they were content with the delivery of learning and teaching of their course during the pandemic
- 78 per cent said they were able to access the learning resources they needed – such as lecture notes, course materials, journals, or a Virtual Learning Environment.
Our universities have shown real innovation and resilience in adapting to this pandemic, which is shown by the majority of students rating their overall experience of their courses positively – Michelle Donelan, universities minister
“The NSS has played an important role in capturing student views during what has been an extraordinarily difficult time for students and university staff,” said Nicola Dandridge, chief executive of the Office for Students. “This year’s survey provides a valuable picture of students’ perceptions about the quality of their course and overall academic experience during a year in which they have had to contend with so much disruption.
“The questions which ask students how they consider their university or college adapted to the pandemic will be particularly useful given the possibility of some restrictions continuing to apply this autumn. We know that institutions and lecturers worked hard to move courses online, and there have been many examples of innovative approaches to teaching and learning. That said, there are important lessons from the different experiences seen by students at different universities and colleges.
“There is a more general decline in students rating various aspects of their academic experience positively. Although these findings will inevitably reflect the unavoidable consequence of the pandemic, universities and colleges will want to consider their own results to ensure that the quality of their courses remains high, and that they can learn lessons from the pandemic which help support students’ academic experience this autumn and in the future. It is also a concern that only 42 per cent of students agree that their university or college took sufficient steps to support their mental wellbeing. Clearly, the circumstances last year were exceptional, but consideration should be given to what more can be done to ensure students are appropriately supported.
It is a concern that only 42 per cent of students agree that their university or college took sufficient steps to support their mental wellbeing – Nicola Dandridge, OfS
“As prospective and current students look to the autumn, it will be important that universities combine credible plans to restore face-to-face teaching with sensible contingency planning in the event that some restrictions need to continue.
“The OfS will continue our work on reviewing the NSS. The OfS board agreed a number of changes earlier this year, and the next phase of our review will consider a range of issues. This will include examining potential changes to the questions asked and the way that information is published. We will work closely with students and their representatives, the universities and colleges we regulate, the government and all other interested parties as we take this important work forward.”
Universities minister, Michelle Donelan said: “I recognise that the past 18 months have been uniquely difficult for students, and we have set out clear expectations that the quality and quantity of tuition should be maintained.
“We have also been clear that students should be receiving good quality mental health support, and universities have had access to up to £256 million to use towards this.
“Whilst there is still more to be done, our universities have shown real innovation and resilience in adapting to this pandemic, which is shown by the majority of students rating their overall experience of their courses positively. I urge vice chancellors to continue their work as we deal with the legacy of this virus.”
After a very unusual and challenging year, it is not surprising to see that the pandemic has shifted students’ views on their overall university experience – Alistair Jarvis, UUK
In response to this year’s NSS results, Alistair Jarvis, chief executive of Universities UK, said:
“After a very unusual and challenging year, it is not surprising to see that the pandemic has shifted students’ views on their overall university experience. Significant restrictions have limited the in-person teaching, support and non-academic activities that universities have been able to offer.”
“Universities have done all they can to help students progress and meet their learning outcomes with additional learning and wellbeing support at the same time as implementing COVID-19 safety measures.”
“It is positive to see innovative approaches to teaching and learning recognised. These survey insights are highly valuable to universities as they plan for the next academic year and will help them to provide the best possible student experience.”
We are pleased to see that despite these challenges, the NSS has shown the majority of students were satisfied with the quality of their course this year – Hollie Chandler, Russell Group
Dr Hollie Chandler, head of policy (higher education) at the Russell Group, said:
“Students have responded brilliantly to the challenges created by Covid, including the limitations it placed on in-person teaching. We are pleased to see that despite these challenges, the NSS has shown the majority of students were satisfied with the quality of their course this year.
“Staff at Russell Group universities have worked hard to support students and provide high-quality online teaching and blended learning. Our universities also increased their investment in wider support for students – with additional financial support packages available for students facing hardship, and developing new ways to provide counselling, mentoring and mental health services to make these even more accessible.
“We are now looking ahead to the new academic year and welcoming students back on campus. While our members are rightly planning for a range of scenarios, they are prioritising interactive teaching, and are preparing for most seminars, small group classes and lab work to be taught in-person. An element of online learning, which was also an important feature of university courses pre-pandemic, will continue – both to enhance learning and also to provide the flexibility to respond to public health measures or local outbreaks where necessary while minimising disruption.”
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