Student Hut Tracker Rewind: the 2020 deep dive

Lois King on 2 December 2020

We have been researching students' thoughts and feelings all academic year long, and here's the round-up of the findings of 2020.

It’s been one heck of a year, and so much has changed in the education sector that it’s no surprise that students have felt the impact. We’ve all had to adapt, but the uncertainty around exams, A Level results and online learning has been particularly tough on students who expected one university experience and received another. And how do we know? We asked them, every fortnight since the start of lockdown 1.0. So, here’s everything we learned from our student tracker this year:

Students have come full circle; in March, they were more concerned about face-to-face lessons being able to go ahead than the cleanliness of their university. Since then, we’ve seen fluctuations in concerns over PPE and hygiene, and now, as we approach the end of the year, students are once again raring to return to campus, telling us that they miss the social interaction and the quality of face-to-face learning. And in a bid to return, seven in 10 students told us they were willing to take Covid-19 tests as and when needed on campus. 

Time and time again, the main concerns for students this year have been mental health, the risk of catching Covid-19 and job prospects. The economic impact of the pandemic has particularly affected recent graduates, or those who rely on part-time work to fund their studies. 16% of students lost their employment, or were unable to source employment during the pandemic, leading to a general disengagement with classes and university culture. 

The fate of Clearing was also uncertain, rattled by the A-Level results u-turn which 68% of students were unhappy with. Combined with the impact of the Covid-19 crisis on their education, the Results’ Day u-turn led to an overwhelmingly negative response towards starting or returning to university, with 81% of students reluctant to do so. However, universities showed great support for their students, with 70% of students rating their interactions with university staff positively, resulting in better staff-student relationships and better feeling around attending university after the initial backlash. 

Those who decided to stay at their institutions, or begin their first year, had trouble settling in to the new term. One in 10 considered dropping out, and a further one in 10 said they were contemplating transferring courses. But the key takeaway from this year has been communication; without it, students were left in the dark, questioning their choice to enrol. We know that it’s difficult to outline your plans for the coming months, but try to be as open as you can with your students, updating them with as much information as possible to build trust and engagement with your institution. 

We are now seeing a shift in student attention, with academic stress overtaking the importance of Covid-19 for a quarter of students. Personal tutor support, transparency around examinations and assessments, alongside online resources are needed more than ever and will help students manage their academic stress. Seven in 10 prospective students would opt for the Welsh approach and would like exams to be cancelled in favour of classroom assessments, where they can better show their skills and knowledge. Keep talking to your students and find out how and where you can help and support them, despite the current uncertainty. 

And the good news? Virtual open days offered a modern, and more sustainable, way of carrying out traditional open day events. We also saw a surge in digital Clearing options, paving the way for more effective systems in the future. Of course, virtual events cannot compare to the feeling of visiting an institution in-person, but universities have been coping well with the challenges of moving online. Although two in five students reported settling in poorly in the first term of 2020, nine in 10 students still felt supported by their institution, amid unprecedented changes to their university experience. 

The challenges of this year have forced students and institutions to innovate and come up with new ways of overcoming adversity. The Student Hut Tracker has revealed that, while it has been a tough year for students, they are still keen to make the most of their university experience, and they’re happy to accept some tweaks to the system. Students want to be on campus, and they want to be learning. What they need from you is support and communication at all stages of their student journey, from application to graduation, to ensure they stay engaged and connected to your institution, and avoid stress and potential drop-out or burn-out.

That’s a wrap for the student tracker, we hope the insights we’ve provided over the past nine months have been useful and have helped you understand your students’ attitudes and motivations during the most uncertain time. As we move into 2021, we will be continuing to track student feelings and behaviours, so make sure you’re signed up to receive all the latest updates. 

Lois King
Lois King on 2 December 2020