Four in five students want to return to university in January, survey suggests

Around four in five report feeling happy they decided to go to university this year rather than deferring

More than four in five students want to remain at university and continue with their course for the rest of the academic year despite the disruption wrought by the Covid-19 pandemic and government-enforced lockdowns, a new survey by Opinium suggests.

The survey of 1,000 university students for Unite Students was conducted between 30 October and 6 November, after the announcement of the second national lockdown in England.

Around four in five (85%) said they would stay in their university accommodation to complete their studies, rather than return home after the Christmas holidays.

Encouragingly for the sector, a similar proportion of first-year undergraduate and postgraduate students (81%) reported feeling happy they decided to go to university this year, rather than deferring. However, a smaller number felt they had transitioned well (72%) or received adequate support from their university during their transition (63%). Nearly three in 10 (29%) said they had not been able to make new friends in their first few months at university.

It is always better to learn than to build a blank space on your CV and their current behaviour is helping to set them up for success in the post-pandemic world when it eventually comes
– Nick Hillman, Higher Education Policy Institute 

The Department for Education (DfE) this week announced that students in England will be able to travel home to spend Christmas with their families once the national lockdown ends on 2 December.

Students will be able to travel home between 3 to 9 December in what ministers have deemed a ‘student travel window’. Departure dates will be staggered regionally so that students in nearby universities do not flood local public transport networks on the same day. Exiting promptly after completing the mandatory four-week period of lockdown reduces “the risk of transmission to family and friends at home”, the DfE said.

Universities can apply to the government ‘lateral flow’ mass testing programme, but students are not guaranteed tests and will not be obliged to take a test before travelling home. Speaking to the Today programme on Radio 4 on 11 November, universities minister Michelle Donelan described the new mass ‘lateral flow’ testing as “complementary” to the government plan to return students to their homes.

Some fear students will opt not to return to campuses after the Christmas period Labour’s shadow universities minister said: “It is deeply concerning that the government still have no plan for what students should do in January. They must bring a plan forward urgently.”

Nick Hillman, director of the Higher Education Policy Institute, said: “It is easy to forget how aspirational people are about their own lives. This important new research reminds us that students are keen to learn, keen to get on with their lives and keen to make the best of the opportunities they have, despite the challenging times in which we live.

“Covid has disrupted students’ lives in unfortunate and regrettable ways but they are acting rationally in wanting to continue with their education. It is always better to learn than to build a blank space on your CV and their current behaviour is helping to set them up for success in the post-pandemic world when it eventually comes.

“We often hear complaints about ‘snowflake students’. Yet far from this caricature, students have typically approached the pandemic in ways that suggest they are resilient, aspirational and very sensible.”

Richard Smith, chief executive of Unite Students, said: “I know how challenging it has been for all of those who work in the sector, throughout the UK, to support students, and keep them safe and secure while still providing a meaningful and enjoyable experience. Given the scale of the challenge and uncertainties we have all faced, I think this is something that they should all be very proud of.”


Read more: Universities UK announces support for post-qualification admissions

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