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Students’ mental health hit by Covid-19, but majority say university life has positive effect

Student with mask

In a survey of 2,000 students, carried out for @Unite_Student by Yonder Data Solutions, university students said the two biggest struggles they’ve faced as a result of Covid-19 have been the lack of face-to-face teaching and practical experience (79%) and their mental health and wellbeing (77%). However, 84% students agree that engaging in university life has had a positive impact on their mental health.

In addition, four in five (79%) students would like a return to face-to-face tuition after the Easter break, if lockdown restrictions are eased.

Key findings:

  • 77% students struggled with mental health and wellbeing as a result of Covid-19
  • But 84% say engaging in university life has been positive for their mental health
  • Students biggest struggle this year is the lack of face-to-face teaching, practical experience or facilities (79% cited this)
  • Four in five (79%) students would like a return to face-to-face tuition in the third term, if lockdown restrictions are eased
  • Traditional face-to-face university experience remains key for students
    • 86% are keen to get onto university campus once it is safe to do so
    • 79% want to receive some face to face teaching next term if restrictions ease
    • 75% agree that living in university accommodation and being on campus is as important a part of the University experience as lectures and tutorials
    • 62% are likely to return to their student accommodation for their third term if lockdown restrictions are eased, with 47% saying they’re very likely to do so

93% of students intend to stay on at university, despite Covid-19 challenges 

Research Unite Students published at the end of 2020 (11 Dec) revealed that although 2020 has seen significant challenges, students in the UK have adjusted well and intended to continue their university courses in January 2021:

  • Four in five students (81%) agree that although it is not how they expected their first year at university to be, they value their time there
  • Almost three quarters of students say they’ve transitioned well to life at university this year (72%) with university peers, parents and universities themselves offering the most valued support
  • The results overwhelmingly show that students are happy with the choices they’ve made: not to defer (81%) and to move away from home (82%) despite coronavirus
  • However, challenges remain: 54% would still like to receive more support from their university

Unite Students, the UK’s largest provider of student accommodation, asked 1,000 UK students about their experience during the first months of the new academic year. The survey found that despite the disruptions caused by the Covid-19 pandemic, the vast majority (93%) intend to remain at university and continue with their courses for the rest of this academic year.   More than four in five (85%) said it was likely they would stay in their current accommodation to do this (vs 7% who said it was unlikely).

Over four in five students are happy they decided to go to university, with 81% agreeing that although it is not how they expected their first year at university to be, they value their time there. More than a quarter (27%) strongly agreed.

Almost three quarters of students who were polled by Opinium say they have transitioned well to starting or continuing university this year (72%) and nearly two thirds (63%) say their university has done a good job of supporting them during this period. Three quarters (75%) also agree that living in student accommodation away from home and being at university is better than the alternative.

When asked about support for transitioning to university, students have found their peers and friends at university as the most helpful source (46%), followed by parents (34%) and their university (31%). 

However, just over half (52%) of students agree they are meeting new people and making new friends, while 29% disagree; perhaps a product of the challenges of Covid-19 restrictions and social distancing this year. Some students also said they’d like to receive greater support in the current climate.

Students are happy with their decisions

Despite the pandemic, the results overwhelmingly show that students are happy with the choices they’ve made. 81% are glad they decided not to defer and 82% are happy they moved to student accommodation rather than staying at home during the pandemic, driven by a desire to ‘immerse themselves in university life’ (41%), live with people their own age away from home (34%), wanting independence from their parents (27%) and experience a new city (23%).

For almost a quarter of students, deferring the 20/21 academic year never crossed their minds (24%), while the same proportion believe now is the right time to invest in their education.

The importance of the whole university experience is reflected in students’ decisions to live away from home, with the majority of students feeling they are benefitting from the experience this year; 92% like the greater independence that comes from living away from home and 64% like living with people their own age. 85% also said it was likely they would stay in their current accommodation in January.

Commenting on the survey results, Richard Smith, Chief Executive of Unite Students, said:

“In what has been a very difficult year for students, it is reassuring – but not surprising – to see an exceptional sense of resilience come through in these survey results. Despite the pandemic, students continue to see the value in not just the educational aspect of their degrees, but also in the social skills and independence that the wider university experience provides. The majority are committed to continuing this experience, although it may be different and they are adjusting to a new learning experience.

“Likewise, I know how challenging it has been for all of those who work in the sector, throughout the UK, to support students, and keep them safe and secure while still providing a meaningful and enjoyable experience. Given the scale of the challenge and uncertainties we have all faced, I think this is something that they should all be very proud of.

“Doing the right thing for our students and staff has been our priority throughout the pandemic and it is important that we maintain our focus on this throughout the winter and beyond. We are already looking forward to welcoming students back in January as they continue their studies.”

Commenting on the survey results, Nick Hillman, Director of the Higher Education Policy Institute (HEPI), said:

“It is easy to forget how aspirational people are about their own lives. This important new research reminds us that students are keen to learn, keen to get on with their lives and keen to make the best of the opportunities they have, despite the challenging times in which we live.

“Covid has disrupted students’ lives in unfortunate and regrettable ways but they are acting rationally in wanting to continue with their education. It is always better to learn than to build a blank space on your CV and their current behaviour is helping to set them up for success in the post-pandemic world when it eventually comes.

“We often hear complaints about ‘snowflake students’. Yet far from this caricature, students have typically approached the pandemic in ways that suggest they are resilient, aspirational and very sensible.”

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