From education to employment

Students signal significant bounce-back in the value of their studies

Nick Hillman, Director, HEPI

The Advance HE / HEPI Student Academic Experience Survey 2022 shows student perceptions of value for money and other key indicators have shifted positively towards pre-Covid levels.

Encouraging signs of recovery from the impact of the Covid-19 pandemic on the student academic experience are revealed in the Student Academic Experience Survey 2022 published 9 June 2022, by Advance HE and the Higher Education Policy Institute (HEPI), written by Jonathan Neves and Dr Alexis Brown.

Key findings, reflecting the responses of over 10,000 full-time undergraduate students, include:

  • 35% of respondents reported ‘good’ or ‘very good’ value for money; a significant improvement from 27% last year
  • 32% reported ‘poor’ or ‘very poor’ value, against 44% in 2021
  • a clear upturn in perceptions of positive value held by students from England (24% in 2021 to 35% in 2022) and Wales (29% in 2021 to 40% in 2022)    
  • perceptions of value among Scottish students have declined (50% in 2021 to 48% in 2022); Northern Ireland students view their experience the lowest value – 28% – though this is a slight improvement from 2021 at 27%    
  • measures of ‘experience versus expectations’ show improvement too, with a 4% increase to 17% this year saying that their expectations had been exceeded; those reporting their expectations had not been met fell from 27% (2021) to 18% (2022); most students, 51%, reported that their experience was ‘better in some ways and worse in others’. First-year students are noticeably more upbeat than those in their second or third year of study    
  • mental health remains a very significant concern and is by a considerable margin the most common reason students give if they are considering leaving university (34% cited mental health, the next most cited reason was, ‘course content not what I expected’, 8%); students recorded the importance of lecture staff being able to support them as well as mental health specialists.    

Significant factors influencing poor value are tuition fees, teaching quality and the cost of living, the latter two both being of greater importance than reported in last year’s survey. The cost of living was particularly highly noted by disabled students – 42% – whereas it was a significant factor for 34% of students not declaring as disabled. In thinking about value, students appear least concerned about sports and social facilities, class size, and university buildings and campus. When asked which costs associated with studying were of most concern to students, over twice as many students said they were most concerned about the cost of living (52%) as the cost of tuition fees (23%).

For responses to both ‘expectations not being met’ and ‘expectations being exceeded’, course organisation, teaching quality and feedback were all important considerations. Students were positive about their course being challenging; and this year, there was a slight increase in the number of students who would not change their course or university (59%, 2022 and 58% 2021), though this is still some way below the 2018 and 2019 pre-pandemic level, both 64%.

In open questions about improving the academic experience, the most frequently raised topics were, in order: quality of feedback; quantity of in-person teaching (linked with other Covid restrictions); administrative failures; mental health support, and strike action. 

In new questions this year, about loneliness and freedom of speech on campus’, the majority of students (64%) either agreed or agreed strongly with the statement that ‘I feel comfortable expressing my viewpoint, even if my peers do not agree with me’, with only 14% disagreeing or disagreeing strongly. That said, Black and Asian students were less likely to agree that they heard a variety of views on campus (58% and 61% agree versus 72% of White students). A breakdown of the figures showing a sense of belonging reveals that the majority of White students – 61% – feel this positively, while for other student groups, the sense of belonging is significantly less evident: Asian: 48%; Black 46%; Chinese 46%; mixed: 53%; and Other 43%. However, a new question on loneliness identified that higher education can be a lonely place, with nearly one-in-four feeling lonely ‘all’ or ‘most’ of the time.

Alison Johns, Chief Executive Advance HE, said:

“It is welcome to see that overall, perceptions of value are recovering, though it is clear from the detail of the report that some groups, particularly Black students, do not enjoy the same experience as their peers. The findings in the report offer insights for institutions to make evidence-informed change and to accelerate this improvement for all students.

“The evidence of poor mental health remains a significant worry. I know that many in the sector are working really hard to support students, and I believe it is imperative that we draw from this evidence that we all need to do even more together, especially sharing good practice.” 

Nick Hillman, Director of HEPI, said:

“It is fantastic to see so many of the key measures bouncing back after such a difficult period. Most students have been keen to get on with their studies, despite the impact of Covid and also industrial action, and staff have been working their socks off to help ensure this happens. We are not out of the woods yet, as some indicators continue to lag behind their pre-Covid levels. Yet the headline story from this year’s survey is undoubtedly a positive one about recovery.

“Nonetheless, despite the continuing strong appeal of higher education, it is a tough time to be a student, with cost-of-living rises, mental health challenges and worries about the future. One area that we have not previously explored in the survey but which is included this year is loneliness and a notably high proportion of students say they often feel lonely.

“Higher education institutions are generally keen to do more to support their students in every way they can, but this can only happen if there are sufficient resources to deliver excellent teaching and excellent support outside of the seminar rooms.”

The Survey was designed and developed in partnership between Advance HE and the Higher Education Policy Institute (HEPI). SAES has been running since 2006 and is widely referenced to support policy and evidence for change.

Sector Response

Susan Lapworth, Interim Chief Executive, Office for Students, said:

“This survey offers some early encouraging signs that students’ experience of university is improving following the pandemic. It is right that courses have – in the main – returned to normal and that students are able to enjoy the full in-person academic and social experience higher education offers. Students from all backgrounds should be confident that they will receive a high quality academic experience which opens doors for a successful life after graduation. Where this doesn’t happen the OfS has strengthened our approach to regulating quality, and will take action to protect students from low quality courses.”

NUS Vice-President for Higher Education Hillary Gyebi-Ababio said:

“It’s deeply concerning that the majority of students don’t think they’re getting good value at university, with students increasingly burdened by the rising cost of living.

“We’re hearing from students who are working three jobs, can’t afford the bus ticket to their university library, and who are cutting back on cooking food to avoid spiralling energy costs.

“The Government should introduce rent protections, offer basic levels of maintenance support, and announce a cost of living payment for all students.

“More are considering leaving university than last year, and mental health is cited as the core reason as anxiety amongst students remains disproportionately high. Students need urgent mental health support now, as well as protections to prevent thousands reaching crisis point.

“Students from across the UK are desperate for something radically different. The current marketised, profit-driven model is broken. The Government needs to finally commit to a #NewVisionForEducation, which is fully funded, lifelong and accessible for all”.

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