UK student satisfaction collapses as pandemic drags on

Hepi-Advance HE survey finds growing frustration with UK university courses in a year of major upheaval

June 24, 2021
Man walks past office renting student accommodation illustrating education’s value for money
Source: Getty

Nearly one in three students at UK universities considered quitting their course during the pandemic, says a major new study that reveals the extent of undergraduate dissatisfaction with online teaching.

In the most detailed study of undergraduate life in the Covid-19 era published to date, Advance HE and the Higher Education Policy Institute (Hepi) asked more than 10,000 full-time students in the UK to comment on their experiences over the past year.

Reversing a trend that had seen undergraduate degree satisfaction rise steadily in recent years, this year’s Student Academic Experience Survey found 44 per cent of students felt their course represented “poor or very poor value” compared with 29 per cent with that perception in 2019.

Only 27 per cent felt their course was “good or very good” value for money – down from 41 per cent in 2019, says the report published on 24 June.

Graph of value for money of university courses, according to Advance HE/Hepi survey

That drop contrasts sharply with last year’s report, which was conducted when universities were rapidly pivoting to remote learning and suggested students were relatively unperturbed by the switch to online learning, with 39 per cent of respondents perceiving their course as good value for money.

“It appears that many students, after several long months of upheaval to their learning, have reached a clear conclusion that their experience does not represent good value,” says the report, adding that “there is a clear desire to return to in-person teaching as soon as possible”.

Only 50 per cent of students were happy with their timetabled contact hours, down from 65 per cent in 2019, with 30 per cent dissatisfied, up from 19 per cent in 2019. The survey suggested that average timetabled contact hours declined by 15 per cent year-on-year, from 14.6 hours to 12.4 hours, although there was an increase in independent study hours, from 14.1 to 15.7 hours. This may reflect how watching pre-recorded lectures counts as independent study under the survey methodology.

Unhappiness with the return of assignments also rose, with 53 per cent saying their expectations were not met, up from 45 per cent in 2019.

The growing dissatisfaction with university courses compared with 2019 was “pretty stark”, said Rachel Hewitt, director of policy and advocacy at Hepi, who co-authored the study with Jonathan Neves.

While the slump was “inevitable – to some degree – given the incredibly challenging year” and “not just a consequence of how universities had responded”, it did raise questions about some universities’ decisions to retain online lectures this autumn, she added.

“Students really missed these face-to-face interactions, such as not being able to walk up to a member of staff after a lecture and ask a question,” said Ms Hewitt. “If universities are going to offer a blended experience of online and in-person teaching, there are ways of doing it to keep students more satisfied, with students preferring live lectures to recorded ones.”

Overall, 29 per cent say they had considered leaving their course – although mental health worries, rather than dissatisfaction with course content, was the most common reason for thinking about quitting.

Despite growing frustration with online teaching, the majority of students – 58 per cent – would still have chosen the same course and institution, says the study. Only 11 per cent felt they should have deferred their start date and 5 per cent stated an apprenticeship would have been a better option. Just 2 per cent regretted not going straight into employment.

“The pandemic has been a really tough time for students but it’s been difficult across the board, including for young people not in higher education. These results suggest that students understand this,” said Ms Hewitt.

The survey also highlighted a number of areas where students were broadly happy with their institution. Asked whether their university was committed to eliminating racial inequalities for students, 67 per cent agreed and only 5 per cent disagreed.

However, only 43 per cent of students agreed their voice was heard by their institution – with 18 per cent saying it was not and the remainder undecided on the issue.

“This is an interesting finding given recent moves to reform the National Student Survey, which may have its flaws but does seek to represent students’ views. Is now the time to reduce opportunities for the student voice to be heard?” said Ms Hewitt.


Print headline: Satisfaction slumps among students as pandemic drags on

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Reader's comments (2)

Not that surprising and probably reflected in staff satisfaction too. I am looking forward to more face-to-face interaction since that is the advantage traditional universities have over online providers. Current fee levels are hard to defend without the personal touch.
What about postgraduates? Surely they must also feel hard done by, given that PG taught courses cost £10,000 on average and feature comparatively less teaching hours.