Psychology explains why students aren’t flocking back to campus

Our higher valuation of scarce commodities and our aversion to losing things we value now play in digital education’s favour, suggests Paul Penn

June 10, 2022
A gold nugget in a pan of grit, symbolising scarcity value
Source: iStock

Lockdowns around the world were marked by a seemingly perpetual media furore about students being “ripped off” and “failed” by the sudden pivot to remote delivery. Students’ disaffection at the withdrawal of campus-based delivery seemed so pronounced and widespread that it was assumed they would flock back to campuses as soon as they were able.

Yet that doesn’t seem to have happened. Anecdotally, tutors are reporting frequently giving lectures and seminars to sparsely populated (or even empty) rooms on campus. And Times Higher Education’s snapshot survey, published this week, seems to bear this out: 76 per cent of the 338 respondents said attendance at their in-person lectures is lower than it was pre-Covid, compared with just 4 per cent who said it is higher.

So what explains this apparently counterintuitive situation? Was all the dissatisfaction with online learning just the invention of a media hostile to universities? Perhaps there was some exaggeration by the press. But, in my view, a couple of key psychological principles are also very apposite here. Unfortunately, they suggest that a joyful mass return might not be in prospect any time soon.

First, when something is not available, or is in limited supply, a much higher value is placed on it than when it is abundant. This is referred to as the scarcity effect. It was operating when social restrictions were in place and campus-based delivery was either not available or subject to significant capacity restrictions (that is, not available to everyone).

The scarcity effect worked in concert with our proclivity to experience a given loss more intensely than an equivalent gain, referred to as loss aversion. Students had lost something highly valuable (campus-based delivery) but were still being asked for the same expenditure of money, time, effort and emotion. Unsurprisingly, this was not a welcome development.

The higher education sector interpreted disaffection at the withdrawal of campus-based delivery as a reflection on student preference, without considering the role that scarcity and loss aversion played in shaping that preference. Consequently, it was reasoned that the disaffection would rebound into contentment (maybe even joy) when campus-based delivery was reinstated.

Motivated by their need to maintain their campus-based sources of income, as well as by government threats of fines if they keep their teaching online, higher education institutions in the UK (as elsewhere) are now pushing strongly for a return to campus. Thus, campus-based delivery has become abundant once again – and so cannot rely on the scarcity effect to enhance its perceived value.

The more strident that universities become about returning to campus, the more students’ valuation of remote delivery will benefit from the scarcity effect and loss aversion. The latter is particularly significant as the extended period of remote delivery has given students a lot to lose.

Over the best part of two years, students adapted to studying remotely. They orientated their lives such that returning to campus would now mean losing something they value. Maybe they’d miss the lack of commuting, the increased time with family or not having their savings decimated by regular trips to the campus branch of Costa Coffee!

Remember, losses are felt more keenly than equivalent gains. So students are naturally meeting requests to return to campus by asking: “What is the added value of campus-based delivery?” Universities don’t presently seem to have a particularly convincing answer – or, at least, are not clearly articulating it. This is likely a consequence of the assumption that a return to campus was what students desperately wanted.

One might reasonably argue that any issues with on-campus attendance are symptomatic of an extended transition phase and that it is too early for alarm. After all, many students (not to mention staff) are dealing with complex fallout from the pandemic and fitting university around this as best they can. When the dust settles and everyone is a bit less exhausted, maybe we’ll see a resurgence in the uptake of campus-based delivery.

But what if we’re not simply in an extended transition? What if we’ve been duped by the scarcity effect into overestimating the student preference for campus-based delivery? What if reduced numbers of students on campus say less about enduring post-pandemic complications in their lives than about their aversion to losing the things they’ve come to value about remote delivery? What if students are telling us they really don’t want to be compelled to return to campus? What if ignoring that wish only further erodes their goodwill towards their studies?

Universities cannot afford to move forward on the assumption that they can return to pre-pandemic models of operation, however convenient that might be for them. We must urgently seek further empirical evidence into whether the anecdotes about empty lecture theatres are representative. If they are, we need research to establish how we can best adapt what we do to meet the needs of students, moving beyond the pandemic.

The new normal is here; it just might not be as compatible with the old normal as the sector had hoped!

Paul Penn is a senior lecturer in psychology at the University of East London. He is the creator of the Psychology of Effective Studying YouTube channel and is the author of The Psychology of Effective Studying: How to Succeed in Your Degree. In 2021, he won the British Psychological Society and Oxford University Press award for higher education psychology teacher of the year.

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Reader's comments (2)

Isn't this situation similar to that of Working From Home for those workers able to do so. Legitimately, different people have different preferences. Why not let them do what they want if no one loses out? But what can we measure to make sure we are doing the right thing? Businesses could see if it damages profits or business growth or employee satisfaction. Universities might measure class of degree achieved or learner satisfaction. One size is unliklely to please all
The problem is that, prior to Covid, universities were largely set up for on campus delivery. Flexible arrangements were largely only intended as a stop-gap solution to covid. Having significant numbers of students off-campus is not feasible without fundamental change to the way a university operates. Just think about things like efficient use of real estate when timetabling lectures and loss of earnings from on campus-based facilities as examples. My fear is that the gov is forcing a return to pre-pandemic levels of on campus delivery and the students appear to be voting with their feet. This puts universities in a difficult position. I) Go along with the forced return to on campus delivery and suffer a potential backlash in student satisfaction and engagement. Ii) Use dual delivery, which will address the flexibility issue you speak of, but won't be feasible long-term from an organisational or financial point of view as significant numbers of students are likely to elect to study off campus in institutions not optimally configured for it. I suspect the bet is that any backlash, although painful in the short-term, will result in much less upheaval and disruption in the long term and that it's safer to just force the issue. However, that's a bet that may just play into the hands of institutions that most actively adapted to the challenges of remote delivery as a longer term option. It may leave those that didn't in a very precarious situation in which the significant changes they were hoping to sidestep are then forced upon them under less favourable market conditions.