Nearly three in 10 university students are not happy with the academic experience on offer this term, a report suggests.
More than half (53%) of students reported being “dissatisfied” or “very dissatisfied” with their social experience in the autumn term, according to a survey from the Office for National Statistics (ONS).
The findings came on the last day of the “student travel window” – where university students in England can travel back to their family homes for the Christmas period.
The survey, of more than 2,000 students in November, suggests that more than half (57%) have seen their mental health and wellbeing worsen since they started the autumn term.
Students are significantly more anxious than the general population of Great Britain, with mean scores of 5.3 compared with 4.2 respectively (where 0 is “not anxious at all” and 10 is “completely anxious”), the report found.
Of the students living away from home, more than half (56%) said they plan to return home for Christmas.
Of those, more than a fifth (21%) said they plan to travel home on a train, tram or the Underground, while 10% said they will return home on an international flight and 3% by coach or bus, the survey suggests.
The poll was carried out before the Department for Education (DfE) published advice for universities to stagger the return of students over five weeks in the new year to reduce the transmission of Covid-19.
Medical students and those on placements or practical courses with a need for in-person teaching in England should return to university between January 4 and January 18, according to the guidance.
But the remaining students should be offered online lessons from the beginning of term – and the advice says they should only return to their university gradually over a two-week period from January 25.
The survey, carried out between November 20 and 25, found that 51% of students said they are likely to request a refund of some or all their tuition fees if all university teaching is carried out online from January.
Meanwhile, 53% of students said their academic experience would be negatively affected if all university lessons went online from January.
Overall, the survey suggests that 29% of students are “dissatisfied” or “very dissatisfied” with the learning experience or academic support they have received since the start of the autumn term.
It came after the majority of universities have been offering a blended approach of face-to-face and online classes amid the pandemic.
Rachel Hewitt, director of policy and advocacy at the Higher Education Policy Institute (Hepi), said: “Despite universities’ best efforts in most cases, it has been a very challenging term to manage for students and higher education institutions, with changing guidance depending on where they are in the country and disparity between the expectation of face-to-face learning and how much has had to be delivered online.
“It would be interesting to see who students would attribute this dissatisfaction to and whether they believe universities could have offered a better experience or whether it was inevitable that this term was going to be unsatisfactory, due to the pandemic.”
She added: “Clearly supporting student mental health, which was already in decline before the pandemic, is going to be critical as we move through and beyond this pandemic.
“Addressing this will need to be a joint effort between universities, wider mental health services and will require well-funded services.”
Nicola Dandridge, chief executive of the Office for Students (OfS), said: “Whether teaching is delivered in-person or not, students should still expect a high-quality academic experience, particularly as learning moves entirely online ahead of the Christmas break.
“Throughout the pandemic, we have been actively monitoring the quality of provision at universities and colleges in England and we will continue to do so.”
A Universities UK (UUK) spokesman said: “All universities are committed to providing a high-quality and engaging educational experience for their students – including social activities where permitted under local and national restrictions.
“The current public health situation means that most students will experience a blended offer of online and in-person teaching, prioritising safety while ensuring that students can continue to meet their learning objectives and progress with their degree.
“We understand this may not be the university experience which would be delivered in a normal year, but this is not a normal year and universities are investing heavily in Covid-19 safety measures, enhanced digital learning platforms, and additional learning and wellbeing support.”