Less than half of students say universities have been clear about next year, survey finds

A survey by the Higher Education Policy Institute has revealed that students want better communication from their universities

As undergraduates settle into their summer holidays, a new poll suggests less than half have received clear information from their university about what to expect when semesters restart in the autumn.

A survey undertaken by the Higher Education Policy Institute (Hepi) between 12 and 16 June 2020 asked 1,000 full-time undergraduates to describe how clearly their university had explained what impact coronavirus could have on the next academic year.

The poll suggests universities could do more to explain the impact coronavirus could have on next year’s teaching and learning.

Almost as many students who described their university’s messaging year as ‘clear’ (43%) described it as ‘unclear’ (39%) and more described the messaging as ‘very unclear’ (15%) than ‘very clear’ (10%).

Keele University has unveiled a five-stage process for re-opening its facilities; other providers have been less explicit about what level of campus operability would be possible under different types of lockdown. Universities contacted by University Business have not been able to explain exactly what percentage of teaching time will be face-to-face.

As the government announced the extension of lockdown restrictions in Leicester, it is increasingly apparent that emerging from lockdown may not be a steady process. Universities could be affected by localised lockdowns or further extensions of social distancing measures, which would make face-to-face teaching almost impossible to offer.

Students’ views on what will happen next year

When asked what restrictions they thought would be in place next academic year, the survey revealed that students expect increased hygiene (75%), some online learning (71%), social distancing (71%), limited interaction with other students (58%) and limited access to facilities (54%). Most did not expect their university to limit their course modules (34%), move all teaching online (40%) or delay the start to term (39%) – but a large percentage of students were unsure if these restrictions were likely to be imposed (ranging from 24% to 29% of students).

Hepi conducted an identical poll with students in March; the latest survey shows that dissatisfaction levels have generally increased since then.

Most students are positive about their universities’ handling of the final semester. Two thirds (66%) said their university had explained clearly the impact of coronavirus on this academic year (down from 70% in March) and the majority (63%) are satisfied with the way their universities handled end-of-year assessments.

But far more students are dissatisfied with online learning than three months ago. A third of students (33%) now report feeling dissatisfied – up from 23% three months ago. Less than half (42%) are satisfied, a drop of 7% since March.

‘Unsurprising that students are not completely satisfied’

Responding to the Hepi report, the shadow universities minister Emma Hardy said: “These figures show that whilst universities have responded quickly and largely successfully to problems, there are still significant numbers of students not getting the support they need.

“Not all of this can be laid at the door of universities, which have had to meet the challenges with no meaningful help from government.

“It is paramount that the government provides the support needed so universities can feel confident in dealing with students over the impact of COVID-19 during the next academic year.

“The government must also provide increased support to students regarding their mental health and wellbeing and providing well-sourced and sufficient hardship funds to universities, so no student gets into further debt because of the pandemic.”

Rachel Hewitt, director of policy and advocacy at Hepi, said it is “unsurprising that students are not completely satisfied with a model that has been created in such extraordinary times”, but added that universities must “use this time to learn from students what works in terms of online learning, to develop the model available for the next academic year”.

“The results show that students are realistic that the next academic year is likely to be radically different to the norm. They understand that some level of social distancing is likely to remain in place and blended teaching will combine online and face-to-face teaching,” she continued.

“However, it is concerning that less than half feel they have had clear messaging from their university about the next academic year. While it is difficult to predict exactly where we will be by September, it is important universities are as clear as possible in their communications to students.”

Read more: Government announces university research support package

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