On 22 March, we met with Universities Minister, Michelle Donelan MP, to make the case for tuition fee refunds and continued support for students this year. After a productive and wide-ranging conversation, we shared the following Insight Report with her:
In the period since the disruption due to Covid-19 began to be felt widely throughout society in March 2020, the higher education experience has changed immeasurably, putting a huge strain on students across the country. Using a variety of sources and student testimony, this report seeks to outline some of the effects that adapting to being a student during the pandemic has had, showing the immense burden on student mental health over the last 12 months. The impact of the pandemic has been felt throughout all aspects of the student experience, including:
- A severe crisis in student mental health, with half of students suggesting that their mental health is worse than before the pandemic.
- Significant concerns regarding student retention, with 1 in 4 students seriously considering dropping out during this academic year.
- Tangible financial difficulties, with 2 in 3 students seeing their income impacted due to Covid.
- Signs of diminishing student satisfaction, with almost 4 in 5 students feeling that Covid has had a negative impact on their university experience.
- Frustrations with the teaching and learning students are receiving, with 2 in 5 students feeling that a lack of face-to-face contact was having a negative impact on their studies.
- A reduced sense of community and belonging, with 85% of students feeling that they were having a worse social experience because of the pandemic.
- 60% of UCL students reported feeling lonely every day or every week.
- Mental Health and Uncertainty
- Student Retention
- Balancing Other Commitments
- Financial Concerns
- Value for Money
- Teaching & Learning
- Community and Belonging
There can be no doubt that Covid-19 has significantly impacted the mental health of students across the country. According to a recent NUS report, over 50% of students reported that their mental health and wellbeing is worse than before the pandemic, and many of our students at UCL have painted a gloomy picture of the changing circumstances of the last 12 months:
“Staying in school means that I will finish this year with a state of mental health that will take me a year or more to heal from. I just want this all to end.”
Year 2, Education Studies
“We are students in the middle of a pandemic coping with the trauma of uncertainty and pressure to keep our grades perfectly in tact.”
Year 1, Education & International Development
One of the main reasons for the strain on mental health caused by the pandemic is the uncertainty that it has led to for students, who are trying to balance their studies with other commitments and challenges as well as plan for the future. In a recent student survey conducted by Students’ Union UCL, which received over 1,600 responses across the institution, 62% of students claimed that uncertainty for the future due to the pandemic was having a significant negative impact on their personal wellbeing. On top of this, 52% of respondents stated that uncertainty for the future was the area that was having the most significant impact on their mental health and wellbeing.
One of the main consequences of the detrimental impact that Covid-19 is having on student mental health is the number of students who are considering dropping out of university. According to data collected in the survey mentioned above, 1 in 4 students has seriously considered dropping out, which is similar to national benchmarking. This is backed up by other statistics in recent months, such as data collected on our behalf by Wonkhe and Trendence in October 2020 which suggested that around 1 in 8 students had considered dropping out on a daily or weekly basis. Student testimonies related to why UCL students have considered dropping out has painted a bleak picture on this issue:
“As an introvert in a different continent, I know no one and the lockdown and restrictions make it tougher for me to socialise. The loneliness sets in when it's been five weeks and I haven't any friends, making me question the whole 'college experience'.”
Year 1, Mathematical Sciences
“It has been a very overwhelming transition into term with no end in sight. It is very difficult to keep up, especially when trying to balance the normal academics with this unfamiliar online delivery, not to mention having a healthy work-life balance.”
Year 1, Biological Sciences
As with all areas of society, Covid-19 has thrown up unique challenges with regards to personal circumstances, and this is having a devastating impact on students from multiple angles. Many have reported difficulties with the circumstances they have faced, such as financial issues stemming from a change in situation:
“Throughout my bachelor's degree I worked part time to pay for my rent whilst the student fees were taken care of by the SLC and my Dad had a secure job. That all changed once the pandemic started. My Dad lost his job… I knew the only way I could generate enough income to support my studies was to work nights whilst attending university online.”
Year 1, Engineering with Finance
“There is concern amongst some self-funded students about continuing to fund their studies due to the impact of Covid-19.”
Extract from minutes from a PhD students’ meeting in the School of Environment, Energy and Resources
The difficulties of balancing life as a student with other commitments during the pandemic are not limited to financial difficulties. At UCL over 2,500 students have caring responsibilities for someone under the age of 18, meaning that there are huge numbers of students balancing their study commitments and childcare needs. In addition, many students are likely to have contracted Covid-19 over the previous 12 months or had to care for those in their household who have, adding to the huge challenge this year has posed. According to the most recent data available from the NUS, only a minority of students said that Covid-19 had not had any impact on their income, and 75% were concerned about their ability to financially manage beyond the pandemic.
As mentioned above, many students have experienced financial hardship as a result of the pandemic. One area of huge concern in this regard is accommodation and housing, with NUS reporting that over 1 in 4 students were “extremely concerned” or “very concerned” about their ability to pay rent. Many students have also expressed concerns about their accommodation situation, whether this is related to not being able to afford rent or from having to pay for student accommodation despite not being present on campus or able to enjoy the wider benefits of higher education that normal circumstances provide:
“I am trapped in a situation where dropping out means losing money to buy food and pay for accommodation.”
Year 2, Education Studies
“I was housed by UCL at Urbanest Kings Cross, a student housing complex but one not operated directly by UCL. They are not reducing or refunding rent despite the circumstances of the pandemic, meaning I have now been paying for almost two months of full rent on a flat I am not using (this is in addition to one month of rent I paid for an unused flat at the beginning of the year, since my arrival was delayed due to visa issues related to covid).”
Year 1, Archaeology
Many students linked financial concerns to issues surrounding value for money within their studies. According to the Students’ Union UCL survey, 78% of students feel that Covid-19 has had a negative impact on their overall university experience, and in a separate survey, almost 40% of respondents felt that they had been promised something by the institution with regards to teaching and assessment during the current academic year which was later changed. Student frustration regarding this issue is palpable, and is often linked not only to tuition fees but also to accommodation and other living expenses incurred through continuing with their education during the pandemic:
“We were promised face to face teaching. I have not had a single face to face session but I moved back to London and am paying a lot of rent unnecessarily.”
“I'm frustrated that me and my family have to pay fully international fees for an experience that, for me, as not been one bit fulfilling.”
Year 2, Comparative Literature
“Had I have known the way things are going now is the way it was going to be back in July or August I would not have attended this year... I was not keen to be an international student paying over $30,000 a year to do online study.”
History and Philosophy of Science
Much of the frustration surrounding students’ individual circumstances, and the issue of value for money coupled with the mental health difficulties, stem from the teaching and learning they are receiving. In the Students’ Union UCL survey, over 45% of students stated that a lack of on-campus learning and contact time was having an impact on their learning experience, with 40% of students suggested that a lack of face-to-face contact with their tutors was having a similarly negative impact.
On top of this, in a poll of our network of 2,000 academic reps within UCL in October 2020, just before the second lockdown, over 60% asked Students’ Union UCL to keep pushing for face-to-face activity to be carried out as much as possible within government guidance and in a safe and secure manner. Whilst this has not been possible at various points throughout the past 12 months, it speaks to how far removed the current situation is from what students want and provides an indicator for why their mental health may be suffering as a result:
“The social interaction has been lost, the flow of class has been lost and an educational experience has been lost. We all understand that everyone has felt the impact of the pandemic, but many of us feel like we are not receiving the education we deserve”.
Year 1, LLM
“Claims that the education experience being offered is the same online as it would be in-person come across as tone-deaf. Completion of courses has been made possible to the minimum necessary extent; holistic education experience has been severely lacking. It is difficult to maintain connections with peers half a world away, or that you only ever see on a screen. It is hard to form network connections with faculty who you only interact with for a small window (literally) each week.”
Year 1, Archaeology
Part of the negative impact of students not being able to attend face-to-face lectures relates to the effect this has on their interactions with their peers. Over 50% of those asked in our survey stated that a limited interaction with classmates had a negative impact on their learning experience, the most common factor cited. This has had a concrete effect on the employability of some students:
“A further disappointment is the lack of in-person connection with other students on the course, which is not just a pedagogical issue but a professional one, as we will all be entering the same field and interacting on a professional basis for years to come.”
Archives and Records Management
Finally, the pandemic has affected the sense of community and belonging by directly impacting many of the activities that students’ unions oversee, such as sports clubs and societies. According to our survey, under 40% of students are satisfied with sport and exercise with a similarly low number being satisfied with their student community/ sense of belonging, the lowest of all aspects of the student experience listed. This chimes with the latest findings from the NUS, which suggest that 65% of students are interacting with clubs and societies less than before the pandemic. Equally important is the reduced feeling of community and belonging created by the pandemic, which has a direct link to the mental health issues many students have reported. According to the Students’ Union UCL survey, 85% of students felt that Covid-19 had a negative effect on their social experience at university, 20 points worse than the equivalent responses on education. This may help to explain why almost 60% of UCL respondents to the Wonkhe and Trendence survey reported feeling lonely every day or every week, a figure which was also above 50% nationally.
In order for us to work together to improve student mental health and wellbeing we would recommend that the following be considered:
- Continue to offer financial assistance funds for those students facing the most hardship beyond 31 March.
- Encourage the NHS to prioritise working closer with universities to invest in specialist mental health support services for students.
- Encourage universities to ensure social and co-curricular catch up is considered in parallel with education catch up – working with their students’ union and providing necessary funds and access to space.
- Prioritise relaxing restrictions for student co-curricular activities such as through student clubs and societies.
- Consider whether in the Spending Review there could be a reduction in tuition fees levels, with a substantial refund for current students, to address the major issue of intergeneration fairness and value for money received by students – that has been severely exacerbated by the pandemic.