Covid-19 and beyond: Essential insights for university leaders

The global pandemic has seen major repercussions for the way higher education students study, socialise and live, with mental and physical wellbeing challenged at every turn over the past nine months.

A new research report commissioned by Sodexo, in partnership with Youth Sight, highlights the scale of the anxieties and concerns university students are feeling in the Covid era.

As a provider of catering, facilities management and student accommodation services at over 100 university locations in the UK, serving 130,000 students, Sodexo has conducted its University Lifestyle Survey biennially since April 2004, identifying and tracking trends in key non-academic areas of university life.

This year’s research is perhaps the most valuable to date, documenting how deeply the impact of the Covid-19 outbreak has been felt by the 2020 cohort. The data shows that many students are finding it hard to adjust. Responses from students surveyed before March and during June 2020 show that whilst 75% felt satisfied with their lives at the beginning of the year, this has dropped to 52%.

Covid-19 and beyond: essential insights

Headlines drawn from the data show how student needs, values and behaviours have changed during the pandemic in areas of university experience, academic achievement and personal wellbeing. Students are:

  • Struggling to engage with online teaching, and questioning value for money: they are less satisfied with the level of contact with tutors and lecturers (36% satisfied, a drop from 77% pre-Covid); two in five are happy with online/distance learning.
  • Concerned about their ability to make new friends: initiatives to facilitate safe socialising are now deemed the second most important service they require (32%), after good IT and study facilities (39%)
  • Changing how/where they choose to live: there is a marked decline in numbers of students planning to live in halls of residence – a natural hive of social activity. 61% of students are now planning to live at home or in private rented accommodation, compared to 32% previously.
  • Worried about their prospects: 60% of students are worried they won’t get quality teaching and 50% are currently worried about their ability to find a job.

The rising importance of mental wellbeing support

While the impact on teaching methods, socialising and ‘value for money’ perception may be addressed in a shorter timescale with the encouraging news of a vaccine rollout programme early next year, the effect on students’ mental wellbeing may emerge as a longer-lasting legacy of Covid-19.

Feelings of depression, vulnerability, anxiety and loneliness have been exacerbated by the pandemic and universities will need to direct equal effort into finding new innovations to protect mental health as they do into protecting physical health.

There is little doubt that Covid-19 has led to extremely stretched resources. University staff members who manage health services are being required to balance servicing students’ mental health needs with an unprecedented level of monitoring their physical health. In this environment, it is easy for mental health counselling to take a back seat to an immediate need to control infection rates.

To some extent technology can help overcome this challenge. The new online platform, Student Space, launched in July by the Office for Students, will enable all students at English and Welsh universities to access vital mental health and wellbeing resources.

The importance of a ‘one campus’ approach

Responding to the needs of our university students in the Covid era requires a ‘one campus’ approach where administrators, student unions, and private contractors work in unison against a shared strategy.

This year’s research by Sodexo and YouthSight helps to set an informed backdrop for active discussion within the university community, in order to best respond to student feedback.

As Professor Karen Stanton, vice-chancellor at Solent University, Southampton writes in her forward to the report: “Universities need to know not only what students are thinking now but how their thoughts are changing over time and compare internationally. This survey is a welcome contribution to the evidence base which enables us to develop this understanding and contains insights worthy of reflection, debate and further exploration.”

Read the report in full: Covid-19 and Beyond: Essential Insights for University Leaders


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