The student experience 2020/21: Behind the headlines

How are student finances bearing up?

With the Euro 2020 Championship currently in full swing across Europe after a year’s delay, we are entering an inevitable new wave of COVID-19 as another Coronavirus variant circulates. Getting the virus under control has been a difficult task and it is likely relaxing social distancing restrictions will further accelerate its spread in July. These could easily stretch well into the next academic year. The race is on to vaccinate all adults by the end of the summer with the prospect of more online teaching drawing closer and closer. The dissatisfaction voiced by students so far will rise further if this happens and the results of a recent survey by Advance HE and the Higher Education Policy Institute (HEPI) sets a baseline for more problems to come next year. Behind the headlines lurks a concern about how students finance their studies and too many may find the coming year as demanding as the current year. The role of part-time jobs taking time away from studies has been a concern of TEFS for some time (see links below). But the full impact of the pandemic on student finances has yet to emerge.

This week saw the release of a report based upon the annual Advance HE, Higher Education Policy Institute (HEPI) student academic experience survey (SAES).  It was reported across many media outlets as confirmation that many students (44%) are not satisfied with the value for money of their university ‘experience’ over the academic year. Examples this week are the BBC with ‘Students: ‘Uni definitely not good value this year’, the Guardian with ‘Half of UK university students think degree is poor value for money’ and Times Higher Education with ‘UK student satisfaction collapses as pandemic drags on’.  The cause seems mostly focussed on the inevitable consequences of lockdown, lack of access to campus and the resulting dominance of online learning. Naturally, this dissatisfaction manifests itself with increasing demands for a refund of fees and accommodation costs for rooms they did not occupy.

An alternative headline: ‘Majority of students still satisfied’.

To some observers, the SAES 2021 survey results come as a big surprise. This is because, with 44% not happy there was value for money, the headlines could equally read ‘Majority of students satisfied with university value for money despite the pandemic measures’.  It is indeed a big surprise that there were not more students dissatisfied with their university offering. They may well have become pragmatic and just accepted what had happened.  This will also reflect the massive efforts many teaching and administrative staff made to deliver online teaching. This was a costly exercise itself in terms of finances and time. It has been a massive learning curve for those involved and they should be congratulated for their efforts. I know that the workload involved in re-writing all lectures, tutorials and practical classes for an online format has meant a big workload increase.

The Student Experience survey results.

The SAES 2021 survey has been carried out every year since 2006.  It provides a highly valuable snapshot of what students are thinking within the same academic year. This makes it timely and eagerly anticipated.  The survey itself has multiple questions answered by over 10,000 students each year.  It is administered by YouthSight and its Student Panel is made up of over 47,000 undergraduate students across the whole of the UK. This year the response rate was reported as 21% or 10,186 students.

The level of dissatisfaction reported comes as little surprise when considering the considerable disruption to the academic year since last September.  The SAES survey in 2020 overlapped only slightly with the beginning of the pandemic and the impact on student views was not significant at that point.  This year, the numbers reporting they had not received value for money rose to 44% from the 31% of last year. The surprise here is that 56% we satisfied with what that were offered.

Behind the headlines and student finances.

The SAES survey this year asked a new question about how students financed their living costs from different sources. These were categorised into loans (available to UK students), family, paid employment, and unspecified ‘other’.  The assumption is that ‘other’ represents access to hardship funds. Unfortunately, the results cannot be compared to earlier years before the pandemic and therefore they reflect the uniqueness of the last year. Nevertheless, it and produced some interesting results.

The main conclusion is that students appear to rely on income from part-time employment to a lesser extent than expected.  This is illustrated in Figure 1 taken from the SAES 2021 report.

However, this is an overall average across all students and includes the majority (around 64%) who do not have to rely on employment (see TEFS 27th Jul7 2018 ‘The vast majority – one million – of students have no employment when in full-time studies’ ).  The distribution of reliance on employment for living costs would produce a different picture if those advantaged, and not in employment, were removed. TEFS calculates that reliance on employment income could be greater than 50% of living costs for some students who work well over 10 hours per week. This disadvantage is set against those with no reliance on employment income. Table 1 is taken from the SAES 2021 report and offers some insight into the situation.

The pre-pandemic distribution of employment hours was illustrated by TEFS from the 19th of July 2019 in ‘Students working in term-time: Overall pattern across the UK’. It shows that the proportion working over 10 and even 20 hours per week is significant.  It is also likely that the finances of many families were affected by the pandemic and loss of employment. This would mean more students found they had to apply to increase the level of their student loan during the year.

A comment from one student noted in the SAES 2021 report shines a chink of light onto the reality below the surface of the data.

“I think that the institution could support students’ wellbeing / mental health better. I have been stuck in halls and no form of earning money and there is no way for me to apply for funds. I think there should be more support. This would help my academic experience as I wouldn’t be worrying all the time about whether or not I can afford food the next week”.

This illustrates the dilemma facing our universities. Whilst some students wanted the “provision of more live lectures” it is perhaps also not surprising that many wanted “material that can be accessed when required, so that they can work around employment or caring responsibilities”. It will become a finely balanced compromise in the coming year.

What happened to student employment this year?

The SAES 2021 Survey Report did not  show the extent to which students were in employment to fund their studies, either as numbers or hours worked. In contrast, the report last year gave a better indication but could not take account of the effects of the lock down. Then it was noted that “The proportion who spend any time in employment has grown by 6% over the past few years, with this increase being seen particularly in the numbers who spend 10 hours or more working per week.”

Figure 2 shows that proportion of students working from 2017 to 2020 taken from the SAES 2020 report.  The data from 2021 has not been released by Advance HE so far this year. The assumption is that fewer students found work available, and those who did may have worked fewer hours. These factors alone would account for the apparent low reliance on employment income on average. 

The conclusion in the SAES 2021 Survey Report is that “income from employment is rarely the main source of funding, which makes sense given our Survey only includes full-time undergraduates”. However, this may not be such a simple conclusion to describe the experience of those struggling with their finances.

There is also an apparent paradox reported by TEFS (23rd April 2021) ‘Pandemic student employment: Over 75,000 lose jobs but job market survives collapse’.   Despite the adverse effects of the pandemic, a significant number of students seem to have remained employed throughout the year. This conclusion was based upon the Office for National Statistics labour markets reports. The most recent report in June for the period February to April 2021 indicates a further rise to over 1 million (1.041 million) students in in full-time education who are not economically active (not employed or seeking work). Despite this, it seems many students are still finding work. The real problem might lie in how many hours employment they can secure. For those who are unemployed and looking for work, the situation will be bleak. The employment data in the SAES 2021 survey might shed some light in the situation for those students.

The financial impact of the pandemic on students and their families over the year has yet to be fully revealed.  Some will have weathered the storm and emerged in a good position. But those with fewer advantages will be counting the high cost of continuing in university.

TEFS has reported extensively in the effect of student employment and commuting on study time, and the detrimental effects on those who rely on this income.

See links here.

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