The National Student Survey (NSS) of all final-year undergraduate degree students at UK higher education institutions has been with us since 2005. The students who completed the 2021 NSS were the first to experience significant coronavirus-related disruption, with the first preventative lockdown taking place in March 2020. Teaching and learning were severely disrupted by the COVID-19 pandemic, and there were long periods of virtual-only delivery. Overall satisfaction across the sector amongst respondent students was the lowest ever observed in the survey.
It is important to reflect on and learn from the experiences of our students and staff through and beyond the COVID-19 pandemic, to ensure that our education and student experience is inclusive, agile and responsive, is built on good practice, and enables potential for both students and staff; and that degree standards are maintained. There were falls in overall satisfaction observed in subjects including architecture, agriculture, and creative and performing arts in 2021 – all subjects where delivery will have been impacted by the restrictions in place to help manage the impact of coronavirus. 2021 cohorts will have seen previous years’ student placements, model making, farm visits and performances unavailable to them.
With 2022 being another year where universities have had to pivot to deliver in different ways, we will need to look for the effects of this on individual subjects within the data. Methods of delivery will be key. In a comparison of student satisfaction pertaining to periods of virtual learning only and blended learning for a UK university’s sport and exercise science student cohort in 2021, blended learning yielded consistently higher satisfaction scores across all survey sub-sections (teaching on my course, learning opportunities, assessment and feedback, academic support, organisation and management, learning resources, learning community and student voice), resulting in a significantly higher overall course satisfaction score. The clear preference for blended learning suggests sport and exercise science students appreciated the access to face-to-face teaching, despite the social distancing measures in place.
2022 will be a hybrid year, and we must treat it as such. Coronavirus restrictions will have impinged on delivery to a degree, particularly in the first semester, so our expectations for the sector must be somewhere in between 2021 and a ‘normal’ year.
There are, however, a number of other important factors at play in 2022:
- A record number of students were accepted into their first-choice university in August 2021, as thousands received grades determined by teachers rather than traditional exams. This led to some universities having to accept considerably more students than they had planned, with emergency lecturing job adverts appearing in September, with a September start. This causes concern in terms of the student experience, and the ability to manage this and deliver a good student experience will likely have varied.
- In 2021/22, the sector was beset by strikes, with a small number of universities continuing to face industrial action right through to summer, in the form of marking and assessment boycotts. The uncertainty and anxiety felt by students around the dispute is likely to feed through into the NSS, with effects varying according to the level of local engagement with the dispute at both a university and a classroom/laboratory level.
Differences in institutional culture and management capacity will govern universities’ ability to deliver a positive student experience in the face of the challenges above. This is likely to generate significant year-on-year changes in both institutional and subject NSS outcomes.
There are then further potential downstream effects. The Spatial Economics Research Centre at the London School of Economics and Political Science found that NSS scores have a statistically significant effect on applications at the university subject level. This effect operates via university ranking subject league tables, and creates the possibility of a negative spiral of falling student satisfaction and falling recruitment.
Work undertaken in Australia during the pandemic echoed the findings of the UK study mentioned above. ‘Belonging’ is an important need for students at university, and this was challenged during lockdowns when students were unable to learn and socialise with students in the same physical spaces.
There are some proactive strategies that university staff can employ to make the learning experience more satisfying for students:
- Micro lectures, frequent breaks, and virtual break rooms.
- Allowing students time to get to know each other, find similarities and common interests, and build friendships.
- Being available and approachable, building the student-lecturer relationship and student-student relationships by arriving early and facilitating interaction.
- Using open-ended questions to facilitate discussions and student agency in directing the conversations.
- Making use of new facilities such as the ‘chat’ function, to give another way for students to interact.
Many of these approaches are common sense, but some will have been paused during the pandemic. University leaders need to make sure that they rebuild their university communities effectively, with visible encouragement to staff and students to do so, and clear expectations around the values and behaviours required.
John Britton is a Consulting Fellow at Halpin. Halpin can help universities to develop and improve the student experience. We have a diverse team of sector experts who can assist with all elements of student experience strategy, development and implementation. We work with academic experts in computer science and linguistics to use the latest techniques to provide rapid analyses of student feedback; we have knowledgeable student experience programme managers; and we have experts in many related areas who can help you to develop your thinking, including around inclusive student engagement, academic governance, and employability and personal development. Contact us to find out more.