Just over one in four university students feel they are getting good value for money amid the pandemic, a survey suggests.
The proportion of undergraduate students reporting that their course is good or very good value for money has dropped dramatically from 39% to 27% – the lowest levels recorded by the think tank.
Tuition fees, a lack of in-person contact hours, the absence of face-to-face teaching, and teaching quality were the biggest causes of dissatisfaction cited by students during the pandemic, research has found.
Measures of wellbeing among students have also worsened to their lowest levels, the survey suggests.
The findings come after most students in England, apart from those on critical courses, were told not to travel back to campus and to learn online as part of the third national lockdown in early January.
Students on practical courses, who require specialist equipment and facilities, began returning to face-to-face teaching on March 8, but the remaining students were not allowed to return until May 17.
The study, based on a survey of 10,186 full-time undergraduates studying in the UK, found that among the students who felt their expectations were not met, more than half said there was too little in-person contact with other students (54%) and too little in-person interaction with staff (51%).
Students from England – where undergraduates pay up to £9,250 in tuition fees – are the least likely to report that their course is value for money (24%).
One student said: “Covid undermines what we’re paying for because I’m sure in person it would be great, but online isn’t worth £9,000-plus.”
But levels are also low among students from Northern Ireland (27%), Wales (29%) and the EU (30%).
Perceptions in Scotland – where students do not pay fees – have also declined and are at the lowest they have ever been (50%), according to the 2021 Student Academic Experience Survey.
Only 6% of students said they were very satisfied with their lives, compared with 11% in 2020 – and just 12% of students said they felt their life was highly worthwhile, compared with 15% last year.
Just 11% reported being very happy, compared with 14% in 2020, while 13% said they had low anxiety, compared with 18% last year.
In a new question for the survey – which was carried out between February and March 2021 – just 29% of students said they had considered leaving their course – and mental health was the most cited reason for this.
Nick Hillman, director of the Higher Education Policy Institute (Hepi), which published the survey with Advance HE, said: “We hope policymakers will read the results carefully, including the worrying findings on students’ mental health, and reflect upon them.
“It would be much harder to tackle the problems identified if higher education were to be defunded at the spending review.”
Two out of three (67%) students feel their institution is committed to eliminating racial inequalities, but only 53% of black students hold this view.
A spotlight on specific student groups shows that white students, in almost all cases, were more likely to report more positive responses about their time at university than BAME students, the report found.
Less than half (49%) of black students said they would choose the same course and university again, compared with 62% of white students.
Alison Johns, chief executive of Advance HE, said: “We have all learnt a great deal in the past year and we now need to engage and listen very carefully to students when building the post-pandemic recovery and shaping the academic experience, using evidence such as this insightful survey.
“We should also very carefully consider how we address the widely different academic experience of ethnic groups and the deeply worrying and rapidly escalating crisis in student mental health.”
Overall, the study found that the majority of students (58%) would still have chosen the same course and institution despite concerns about value and lack of in-person interaction, compared with 64% last year.
When students were asked how they would prefer to learn if there were no pandemic restrictions, more than half (57%) favoured mostly in-person lessons and 31% said they would like a blended approach.
The findings will be set out in Hepi’s annual conference on Thursday – where both Education Secretary Gavin Williamson and Office for Students (OfS) chief executive Nicola Dandridge are due to speak.
In her speech, Ms Dandridge will urge universities to plan for face-to-face teaching in the autumn whilst being clear to students that some teaching may need to move online if pandemic restrictions are re-introduced
She said: “It is clearly of concern to see such a significant increase in the number of students saying that their course presents poor value for money – largely driven by the limited availability of in-person tuition.
“We know that staff worked hard to deliver courses under extremely difficult circumstances, and many will be looking forward to getting back to campus in the autumn, providing it is safe to do so.”
Alistair Jarvis, chief executive of Universities UK (UUK), said: “It is disappointing – albeit not surprising – to see how the pandemic has shifted views on value for money. Universities will reflect on student feedback and continue to adapt and enhance blended learning approaches.
“Universities remain hopeful that increased amounts of face-to-face teaching and other activities will be possible next year, whilst ensuring the latest public health advice is followed to keep staff and students safe.”
Universities Minister Michelle Donelan said: “This has been a very difficult time for students, which is why we recently made an additional £85m available for those students most in need, on top of an existing £256 million that universities can draw on.
“To combat the effects of the pandemic on mental health, and bridge any gaps in support, we have also asked the Office for Students to allocate an additional £15 million and worked with them to provide up to £3 million to fund Student Space, a dedicated student mental health and wellbeing platform.
“Education and student wellbeing remain top priorities for this Government, and these findings provide valuable insight as we continue to address the challenges students are facing.”