The outbreak of COVID-19 in early 2020 was, in modern times, unprecedented. And it required an unprecedented response from education institutions around the world.
Now, over six months on from the emergence of the global pandemic and with many institutions preparing for the start of a new and potentially uncertain academic year, it is useful to gauge how students feel about their institution’s response to COVID-19 to date. How have institutions performed on communicating key information to their students throughout the event? How successful was the – in most cases, very rapid – transition to online learning? What should institutions be aware of in terms of student experience as they navigate through the COVID-19 era?
A large global survey by research and benchmarking specialists i-graduate provides valuable insight into the institutional response to COVID-19 from the perspective of current students. This article – the first in a planned series – provides an overview of results from students at UK institutions.
Some UK institutions’ responses were better received than others, with the ‘highest scoring’ institution achieving 71% satisfaction amongst its students. UK institutions did a number of things well in response to COVID-19, unprompted comments from students highlighting the speed of response; provision of regular updates on both the university and government responses; provision of extensions; implementation of policies to help ensure no negative impact of the situation on students’ grades; hard work, support and empathy from tutors, lecturers and supervisors; wellbeing support; continuing careers assistance; and student accommodation refunds.
Communication from UK institutions in response to COVID-19 was largely well received, with 70% of students satisfied or very satisfied. This figure, however, was still slightly lower than the 77% of students globally who were satisfied with communication from their institution.
While the majority of students at UK institutions (62%) felt that the frequency of contact from their institution had been about right, around a third (32%) would’ve liked more contact and 6% felt that there was too much.
UK institutions did a particularly good job providing their students advice on physical health (83% of students who received information satisfied/very satisfied) along with information on wellbeing support (76% satisfied/very satisfied) and travel restrictions (74% satisfied/very satisfied). Students were less likely, though, to be satisfied with information on financial support (55%) and information on learning/teaching aspects: organisation of online lectures/tutorials (57%), organisation of tests/exams (60%) and online learning resources (61%).
Satisfaction with the online learning experience itself was also lower, perhaps unsurprising given the short time in which many institutions had to adapt their offering. Just over half (56%) of students at UK institutions whose studies were moved online as a result of COVID-19 were satisfied/very satisfied overall with the online learning experience, again, behind the global score of 67%.
With significant investment made in online learning at many institutions over the last few months, it is likely that student satisfaction will have increased since the early days of this survey. Considering, however, the number of institutions that are planning on continuing to provide online or blended delivery for the foreseeable future, it is vital that the experience of students is positive.
Satisfaction with different aspects of the online learning experience varied amongst students at UK institutions. It was highest with online learning resources and library facilities (62%), lectures and tutorials (60%) and tests and exams (58%), but lower with assignments and group work (50%).
Looking ahead to when on-site studies resume, just over a quarter (27%) of students at UK institutions indicated that they do not want any online activities to continue. Although in the minority, substantial numbers of students would like various online activities to continue: lectures (44%), tutorials (37%), support services (34%), tests and exams (30%), assignments and group work (28%). This followed a similar pattern globally.
Interestingly, satisfaction was higher amongst international than domestic students in the UK on all measures, a pattern not seen to anywhere near the same extent globally:
International students at UK institutions were also notably more likely than their domestic counterparts to be satisfied with all individual aspects of their online learning experience. While there are obviously differences between groups of international students, this is positive given indications in a number of recent surveys of prospective students that, while some international students are intending to defer their studies as a result of COVID-19, others plan to start studying online then transition to face-to-face studies. With institutions facing dramatic falls in international student numbers, it is key that those who are enrolled get off to the best possible start.
Unlike domestic students where the UK falls behind the global benchmark on all measures, the satisfaction levels of international students at UK institutions were similar to international students globally.
 Investigation of data from 2019 UK Student Barometers shows that it is not the case that international students are routinely more satisfied than domestic students. In the 2019 Student Barometer surveys, satisfaction levels of international and domestic students were similar on many elements, with each group notably more or less satisfied on some.
 A similar picture emerged, however, in a special survey administered from May 2020 by the Student Experience in the Research University (SERU) Consortium on the impact of COVID-19 on student experience at 10 U.S. public research universities. Analysis of data from the survey as of 11 June 2020 found that international students at US research universities were more satisfied than domestic students with their academic experiences and institutional support during the pandemic.
Chirikov, I., & Soria, K. M. (2020). International students’ experiences and concerns during the pandemic. SERU Consortium, University of California - Berkeley and University of Minnesota. https://cshe.berkeley.edu/seru-covid-survey-reports
Students at UK institutions were most likely to be concerned about the impact of COVID-19 on their future career (29%), physical and mental health risks (26%) and completing their studies on time (19%). This was a similar picture for students globally.
As may be expected, levels of concern about continuing further studies, completing their course or graduating were high amongst students at UK institutions, with just a quarter of students (24%) indicating that they were not concerned/not at all concerned. Students at UK institutions were more likely than students globally to express concern (76% v 64%).
Considering the haste with which institutions were required to adapt to providing education in the COVID-19 era, the fact that the majority of students were satisfied with their institution’s response may be considered positive. Comments from students highlight that there are a range of things that institutions did well in their responses, and variation between institutional scores show that some institutions did a particularly good job. It should not be overlooked, however, that a substantial proportion of students overall – 40% in the UK – were dissatisfied. The uncertainty created by the pandemic seems set to continue for some time and it is unclear when, if ever, the education experience will return fully to the pre-COVID model. Institutions, therefore, would do well to investigate and continue to monitor students’ views to ensure that their students have the best possible education experience.
The COVID-19 Response Barometer was developed and administered by global research and benchmarking organisation i-graduate. Participation in the survey was offered free of charge. Survey fieldwork began on 7 May 2020 and is still ongoing at a small number of institutions globally. Analysis in this article is based on data as of 6 August 2020, comprising 22,908 responses from students at 40 institutions around the world. Data from seven UK institutions is included. To allow institutions to continue to measure and track student satisfaction with their response to COVID-19, a number of questions from the COVID-19 Response Barometer will be included in i-graduate’s 2020 Student Barometer and International Student Barometer surveys.
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