Fewer university and college students are positive about their educational experience amid the coronavirus crisis, figures show.
The latest National Student Survey (NSS) found less than half of students in the UK believe their university or college took steps to support their mental wellbeing during the pandemic.
The survey, which received 332,500 responses, found that overall, 75% agreed they were satisfied with the quality of their course – down from 83% the previous year.
This means overall student satisfaction has dropped to its lowest ever level recorded by the survey, with the previous lowest in 2006 at 80% – although there have been changes to the questionnaire since it was introduced.
It found the pandemic had revealed issues with the availability of learning resources, with around three-quarters of students (74%) agreeing they were able to access course-specific resources – down from 87% in 2020.
Conducted between January and April, when teaching was virtual for many students, the survey found around 72% agreed that IT facilities had supported their learning well, a drop from 83% the previous year.
The survey, which gathers the views of mainly final-year undergraduates on the quality of their course, also asked specific questions about the pandemic.
Of the 184,964 students who responded to this part of the poll, 80% said their university or college had taken sufficient steps to protect their physical safety, such as protective equipment and social distancing.
But only 42% agreed that their university or college had taken sufficient steps to support their mental wellbeing during the pandemic.
The head of the Office for Students, which conducts the NSS on behalf of the UK funding and regulatory bodies in England, Northern Ireland, Scotland and Wales, said this was a “concern”.
Chief executive Nicola Dandridge said: “Clearly, the circumstances last year were exceptional, but consideration should be given to what more can be done to ensure students are appropriately supported.
“As prospective and current students look to the autumn, it will be important that universities combine credible plans to restore face-to-face teaching with sensible contingency planning in the event that some restrictions need to continue.”
Universities minister Michelle Donelan added: “I recognise that the past 18 months have been uniquely difficult for students, and we have set out clear expectations that the quality and quantity of tuition should be maintained.
“We have also been clear that students should be receiving good quality mental health support, and universities have had access to up to £256 million to use towards this.
“Whilst there is still more to be done, our universities have shown real innovation and resilience in adapting to this pandemic, which is shown by the majority of students rating their overall experience of their courses positively.”
Alistair Jarvis, chief executive of Universities UK, which represents universities across the country, said: “After a very unusual and challenging year, it is not surprising to see that the pandemic has shifted students’ views on their overall university experience.
“Significant restrictions have limited the in-person teaching, support and non-academic activities that universities have been able to offer.
“Universities have done all they can to help students progress and meet their learning outcomes, with additional learning and wellbeing support, at the same time as implementing Covid-19 safety measures.”
Scottish Government minister for higher and further education Jamie Hepburn said: “The National Student Survey offers a valuable insight into the views of students on their experiences at university, which is particularly important given the disruption of the pandemic.
“Despite this being an extremely challenging period for our students, it is encouraging to see that almost 80% of final year undergraduates were satisfied with the quality of their course. We are committed to working with universities, student bodies and other stakeholders to ensure that students have the best possible experience at university.
“We are acutely aware of the importance of student mental health and wellbeing and have agreed funding of £4.4 million for 2021-22 for colleges and universities to provide counsellors to support students and staff – an increase of over half a million pounds on previous years.
“This year we provided additional funding of £1.32 million to help students deal with the mental health impacts of the pandemic and £750,000 to support NUS Scotland and student associations in providing vital welfare support to students.”