Half of UK undergraduates worried about January return, says poll

Survey of UK-based undergraduates reveals fears over spring term restart despite overall satisfaction with universities’ handling of Covid-19 pandemic

December 3, 2020
Sad New Year
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More than half of UK undergraduates are worried about returning to university in January despite most reporting that they felt safe from coronavirus on campus, a new survey has found.

Some 54 per cent of full-time undergraduate students who responded to the Higher Education Policy Institute (Hepi) poll say they are very or quite concerned about the post-Christmas return to campus, with just 19 per cent saying they are unconcerned about the potential risks. A further 22 per cent say they are neither concerned nor unconcerned about the matter.

The finding follows a call by the Labour Party for the government to issue guidance about the start of the spring term, urging it to introduce a staggered return of undergraduates in January similar to the phased departure of students from campus for Christmas, which begins on 3 December. The government published guidance on 2 December on the return to campus, announcing that it would be staggered.

Rachel Hewitt, director of policy and advocacy at Hepi, said that the findings of the survey, which was carried out by Youthsight, underlined why such advice should be published promptly “so students can be confident about getting back to their studies in the New Year”.

Emma Hardy, the shadow universities minister, said that the government had “finally listened to Labour's call to set out a plan for the safe return of students to university in January. However, the delay in providing this guidance has caused huge, unnecessary stress for students and universities.”

The Hepi survey also asked students about their satisfaction with online learning that has replaced face-to-face teaching in many institutions during the coronavirus pandemic.

More than half of full-time undergraduate students (59 per cent) say they are very or quite satisfied with online learning, up from 42 per cent in June and 49 per cent in March when two rounds of polling were undertaken.

About half of students (51 per cent) are receiving some face-to-face teaching whereas 49 per cent are receiving none, according to the survey, published on 3 December. A third say they currently spend all or almost all their time in their accommodation, while a further quarter (28 per cent) say they spend most of their time in their accommodation.

However, the majority (56 per cent) of students are very or quite satisfied with how their higher education institution has handled any outbreaks of coronavirus, with 79 per cent saying they feel safe from Covid on campus and just 6 per cent feeling unsafe.    

The survey also offers insights into the mental well-being of undergraduates, with 58 per cent of respondents saying they consider their mental health to be in a worse state since the beginning of the pandemic, compared with 14 per cent who say their mental health is better. Just over a quarter (28 per cent) say their mental health is the same.

Only 16 per cent of students are very or quite unsatisfied with the provision of mental health services at their higher education institution, although less than half (42 per cent) say they are very or quite satisfied with the provision of these services.

Half of students are very or quite satisfied with how their higher education institution has provided support services outside of mental health services (for example, careers support).

Noting that student mental health had been an issue prior to the pandemic, Ms Hewitt said that the worsening state of mental well-being meant it was “critical that universities continue to provide the necessary support to their students and monitor levels of poor mental health and well-being among the student body”.

On the apparent increased satisfaction with online teaching, she added that it was “great to see more students are now finding their online delivery satisfying, compared with the end of the last academic year”, which was “probably a marker of the work that has been put in place by universities to ensure blended learning can be made a success”.

jack.grove@timeshighereducation.com

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