Academic experience suffered this year, undergrad survey suggests

Just over six in 10 students felt they received the support they needed from their university in 2021, Advance HE found

Less than two-thirds of undergraduates think that their university ensured the quality of their academic experience during the pandemic, suggests a major survey.

The UK Engagement Survey (UKES), published by Advance HE on 11 November, compiles the responses of 11,905 students across 19 institutions.

Sixty-five per cent of those polled said they thought their university tried to ensure the quality of their academic experience during 2021.

The survey also found that 63% thought they received the support they needed from their institutions during the pandemic – and 74% thought the communications they received during the pandemic were appropriate and clear.

Students have fed back positively about their engagement…[but] the concerns about mental health are worryingly entrenched in student feedback across our surveys
– Anne Rowan, Advance HE

The survey found that lots of measures of student engagement dropped in 2021 against last year’s figures that were themselves lower than the pre-pandemic figures. Fewer students reported finding their course challenging and spending time on research and reflection, with scores slipping by three to four percentage points on average compared to 2020 on a range of metrics. The amount of learning students could do with others was the category with the sharpest drop – falling from 52% to 36% – reflecting a decline in the time students, on average, spend on peer-to-peer learning. Time spent interacting with staff was down nine percentage points, the survey also suggests.

Students reported having slightly less time for some career and skills development during their course. Only 60% of respondents thought their course had helped them “work effectively with others”, down from 72% in 2020. But data showed that online learning had a negligible impact on students’ self-reported ability to hone their critical thinking, independent study and analytical skills.

Twenty-eight per cent of respondents said they considered dropping out of their course during 2021, compared with 26.5% last year: mental health and emotional difficulties were the most frequently cited reason.

Anne Rowan, the report’s co-author and a researcher at Advance HE, said: “In many areas, students have fed back positively about their engagement in the past year. However, the concerns about mental health are worryingly entrenched in student feedback across our surveys.

“As institutions evaluate and plan engagement and Teaching & Learning as we continue to emerge from last year’s restrictions, then student mental health should be a key factor in that planning so that students enjoy educational environments where they all can thrive and reach their potential.”

Earlier this month, an Advance HE survey found that levels of satisfaction among UK postgraduate researchers (PGRs) have fallen to their lowest level on record.

Read more: Do more on mental health or risk regulation, UUK president warns vice-chancellors

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