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Student Academic Experience Survey 2020: strikes and Covid-19 leave their mark

26% of undergraduates say their overall academic experience is better than expected across the board – but feedback from BAME students is a “very significant concern”

This year’s Student Academic Experience Survey (SAES) – published today by Advance HE and the Higher Education Policy Institute (Hepi) – highlights improvements in the student academic experience, yet also proves the disruption of strikes and Covid-19 have damaged student perceptions, and that there are concerns around wellbeing and diversity.

The survey, authored by Jonathan Neves of Advance HE, and Rachel Hewitt of Hepi, questioned 10,227 full-time undergraduate students studying in the UK for their views on their university experience.

The findings show that:

  • 26% of students feel their overall academic experience is better than expected across the board – a strong increase of 6% from last year
  • Students are much more likely to cite the quality of feedback as a main reason that their experience was better than expected (37% compared to 29% last year). Students note, in particular, improvements in staff feeding back on draft work and the amount of time staff allocate to commenting on work. 36% of students have their assignments returned within two weeks on average – an increase on 30% last year
  • Among students whose experience was better than expected, 39% say this was because of support provided for independent study – an increase of 3% on last year.

Students also report working harder, with more weekly contact on average (13.9 hours in 2019 and 14.6 in 2020) and more independent study (13.8 hours in 2019 and 14.1 in 2020).

Class sizes are reducing, with students are spending fewer hours in large classes and more time in medium-sized and small classes and smallest classes.

However, the number of students reporting ‘good or very good’ value for money has declined from 41% in 2019 to 39%, having risen for the previous three years. The data suggests this is because of Covid-19 because students who completed the survey from 16 March 2020 onwards were less positive (38% reporting they received ‘good’ or ‘very good’ value) than those who reported before that date (40%).

In their comments, students referred to the negative impact of industrial action, and Covid-19, upon their university experience.

Students from BAME backgrounds tend to have a less positive experience across a range of aspects. The survey shows they are less likely than white students to perceive they have received good value, learnt a lot, or enjoyed an experience that was better than expected.

They are also less satisfied with access to teaching staff – accordingly, less than half (45%) would choose the same course and institution again given the choice.

“A clear and consistent gap between White and BAME experiences remains,” the report says. “Clearly the overall experience has been disproportionately disappointing for some Black students.”

There has never been a more important moment to ask students what they think. Over the past year, they have witnessed industrial action, a global health crisis and a much tougher labour market. They have responded in the best way possible, by working harder than in the pastNick Hillman, Hepi

New SAES questions for 2020 addressed motivation and technology.

Asked about the main drivers behind their decision to go to university, 53% answered ‘to get on the career ladder’ with 47% saying ‘to follow interest in a subject’. Social considerations, such as ‘all my friends are going to university’ (9%), were not identified as strong drivers in decisions to go into higher education.

Ninety per cent of students report basic technology is used in their teaching but where advanced technology is used (7%), significantly more students say they would choose the same course and university again – the authors point it this is a strong endorsement of how using the right technology, which complements the subject matter, can make a material difference to how students view their experiences.

“I am delighted and encouraged to see that student feedback on assessment, in particular, has improved along with many other areas of the student academic experience,” said Alison Johns, chief executive of Advance HE. “This follows a great deal of hard work across the whole sector.

“It is a continuing and very significant concern that BAME students are still reporting less positively than white students. I am determined and committed to supporting the sector in addressing these issues through our work in equality, diversity and inclusion (EDI), particularly through the Race Equality Charter. All students should have equal opportunity to enjoy a positive experience and look with hope to their future prospects.

“It also remains a considerable worry that wellbeing has not improved in particular for LGB+ students. I know institutions are trying hard to tackle these issues and we can all do more working in close partnership.

“We should also carefully note that students express very important views on educational technology. We aim to feed this into our work to support the sector as it transforms to the new environment and challenges brought about by the coronavirus pandemic.”

In terms of teaching in higher education, this is our moment for big decisions – Alison Johns, Advance HE

Hepi director Nick Hillman said: “There has never been a more important moment to ask students what they think. Over the past year, they have witnessed industrial action, a global health crisis and a much tougher labour market. They have responded in the best way possible, by working harder than in the past.

“Nonetheless, many students are worried about their own lives, with further falls in wellbeing this year. Some groups, such as Black, disabled and LGB+ students, give less positive responses and need more support.

“The pandemic means institutions are having to change what they do. Although resources will be squeezed, it is vital that they continue listening to all students as they prepare for the next academic year.”

The SAES has been running since 2006 and is widely used to support policy and practice changes.

“At any point when significant decisions need to be made, reliable evidence, such as this report, is critical. In terms of teaching in higher education, this is our moment for big decisions,” said Alison Johns.

“The coronavirus pandemic has caused fundamental upheaval for the sector, not least in teaching. Now is our chance to transform quickly and reshape our thinking in how we deliver a first class student academic experience.

“Unwelcome though these painful and life-changing circumstances are, we have a real window of opportunity to take up the challenge and embrace the changes necessary. We must develop a compelling proposition for students. And if we listen to students, they can help us.”


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