Student perception of the value-for-money of higher education dropped this year amid the pandemic and is the lowest since the cap on tuition fees was increased to £9,000 in 2012, new survey figures out today suggest.
The annual Student Academic Experience Survey, published every year since 2006 by Advance HE and the Higher Education Policy Institute (Hepi), has found that students have a considerably more negative impression of higher education than any cohort to precede them.
Just over a quarter (27%) of the 10,000 full-time undergraduate students studying in the UK who responded to the survey felt they received good or very good value, reversing an improving trend recorded between 2017 and 2019. Perceptions of value for money have halved since 2012 when 53% of students rated their experience positively. This year, 44% said the value-for-money of their course had been poor or very poor this year.
Across a range of other metrics, including if universities met students’ expectations, dissatisfaction rates peaked.
Despite the gloomy headlines, Hepi director Nick Hillman said the results were “by no means all as negative as some might expect”. He said some findings “reflect tremendous resilience” in the sector – and expressed his hope that “policymakers read the results carefully, including the worrying findings on students’ mental health, and reflect upon them”. Reducing funding to HE at the comprehensive spending review later this year would make it “much harder to tackle the problems identified” in the survey, he posited.
Clearly of concern to see such a significant increase in the number of students saying that their course presents poor value-for-money
– Nicola Dandridge, Office for Students
When pollsters asked students whether living costs or tuition fees were of greater concern to them, 54% said living costs, compared to 23% who said tuition fees and 23% who said both. The report’s authors – Jonathan Neves and Rachel Hewitt – said the media focus on tuition fees meant the sector “may be missing the importance of how students support themselves while they study”.
Online learning gets positive review
Students who perceived HE to be low value-for-money most frequently cited the cost of tuition fees (59%), level of contact time (47%) and teaching quality (36%) as their biggest motivators.
The percentage of students who said their university experience fell short of their expectations increased from 13% to 27%. Although the number that felt it exceeded expectations dropped from 26% to 13% this year, a similar number to last year felt their university was broadly in line with what they expected or a mixture of better and worse. Those in the third year felt most keenly that their university had fallen short of their expectations.
Asked to discuss the aspects that fell short, students cited student-to-student contact, in-person teaching and interaction with staff. The aspects students thought most often exceeded expectations were the quality and design of courses and their ability to access teaching staff.
University efforts to move learning online appear to have paid dividends. Two-thirds (66%) were satisfied with educational technology, compared to just 8% who were dissatisfied. Nearly six in 10 (57%) want to return to in-person teaching – but 31% said they would prefer a ‘blended’ approach of in-person and online learning to persist.
Majority made ‘right choice’ pursuing HE
In total, 58% of students felt they made the right choice in going to university last year – and the number who wished they had chosen a different course, university or both fell this year. One in 10 said they wished they had deferred – but only 8% wished they had pursued work, activities or post-18 education outside HE. Three in 10 (29%) considered leaving higher education, with a third (34%) of them giving mental/emotional health as the primary reason.
Asked how universities could improve the academic experience, students want improved assessment feedback, more in-person teaching and better communication.
The survey suggests that 51% of students do not feel their university listens to them – a figure the report’s authors said prompted questions about the government-initiated review of the National Student Survey (NSS) by the Office for Students (OfS).
OfS chief executive Nicola Dandridge said it was “clearly of concern to see such a significant increase in the number of students saying that their course presents poor value-for-money”. She said it was vital universities provide students with “clear and timely information about what they can expect before they start their courses” this autumn.
“It is disappointing – albeit not surprising – to see how the pandemic has shifted views on value for money,” said Alistair Jarvis, chief executive of Universities UK. “Universities will reflect on student feedback and continue to adapt and enhance blended learning approaches.”
The sector was “hopeful” more in-person teaching would be possible next year, Mr Jarvis said – adding that the survey showed institutions and staff had “done all they can to help students progress and meet their learning outcomes”.
The general secretary of the University and College Union said students’ had their expectations dashed because ministers and vice-chancellors “pushed ahead with a reckless reopening of campuses”.
“‘A failure by government to underwrite the sector led to vice-chancellors misselling students ‘Covid-secure campuses’ amid notions they could have a relatively normal university experience in a global pandemic. University staff have struggled to pick up the pieces,” Dr Grady said.