A major national survey suggests universities are beginning to reverse the pandemic slump in student satisfaction.
The results of the Student Academic Experience Survey 2022, conducted by Advance HE and the Higher Education Policy Institute (Hepi), will bring relief to institutional leaders in England under pressure from the government and the regulator to demonstrate value.
In the wake of the pandemic, student satisfaction and perceptions of value for money tumbled as disruption upturned timetables and campus routines. The 2022 survey shows a modest recovery in the numbers expressing positive views. The survey elicited the opinions of more than 10,000 full-time undergraduates.
Thirty-five per cent said they felt university was value for money, a significant improvement from 27% last year. In England, these statistics, historically the worse, improved from 24% to 35%.
Correspondingly, the number of UK students that feels higher education offers poor value for money dropped from 44% to 32%.
But these national statistics, heavily influenced by the views of the much larger English demographic, mask more subtle changes elsewhere in the UK. The numbers in Scotland that say HE is value for money dropped slightly but remained streaks ahead of England and Wales, where tuition fees apply. But it is in Northern Ireland where these statistics are least improved – increasing one percentage point to 28%, seven percentage points below the national average.
The vice-chancellor of Queen’s University Belfast recently wrote an opinion piece for University Business, expressing the university’s wish for a new funding settlement from Stormont after a period of prolonged government shutdown. Before the collapse of the Northern Irish executive, ministers were considering swingeing budget cuts to higher education.
Those saying HE was poor value for money typically ascribed their view to the cost of tuition fees, the cost of living and teaching quality. Physical facilities – like the campus, sports and social spaces – were aspects students appear to be least concerned.
The cost of living was statistically higher for disabled students, 42%, compared to 34% of students that did not declare as disabled.
It is clear from the detail of the report that some groups, particularly Black students, do not enjoy the same experience as their peers
– Alison Johns, Advance HE
The number of UK students that felt HE exceeded expectations also improved, by four percentage points, to 17%, narrowing the gap with the numbers of underwhelmed students, which dropped from 27% to 18%. There were signs, too, that student perceptions of course quality had staged a recovery. A slight increase in the numbers that would “choose their course again” meant the number of satisfied students is now five percentage points behind pre-pandemic levels.
Ministers may note that 14% of students said they do not feel comfortable expressing their viewpoints on campus. Freedom of speech legislation for HE is expected to be passed in the next 12 months.
White students were significantly more likely to feel “a sense of belonging”, 61%, compared to Black and Asian students (46% and 48%, respectively).
“It is welcome to see that overall, perceptions of value are recovering, though it is clear from the detail of the report that some groups, particularly Black students, do not enjoy the same experience as their peers,” said Alison Johns, the chief executive of Advance HE.
Mental health was cited by 34% of students as the reason they quit their course, more than any other single factor. One in four students says they feel lonely all or most of the time. Said Johns: “The evidence of poor mental health remains a significant worry. I know that many in the sector are working really hard to support students, and I believe it is imperative that we draw from this evidence that we all need to do even more together, especially sharing good practice.”
Susan Lapworth, interim chief executive of the Office for Students, said the survey findings offer “some early encouraging signs”.
“It is right that courses have – in the main – returned to normal and that students are able to enjoy the full in-person academic and social experience higher education offers,” continued Lapworth. “Students from all backgrounds should be confident that they will receive a high quality academic experience which opens doors for a successful life after graduation. Where this doesn’t happen the OfS has strengthened our approach to regulating quality, and will take action to protect students from low quality courses.”