Fewer students positive about their course amid pandemic

More university and college students have concerns about their educational experience this year compared to last year, results from this year’s National Student Survey (NSS) show today – the survey highlighting particular issues around the availability of learning resources.

Despite the pandemic, however, the NSS also showed majorities of students rating their overall experience of their courses positively. Overall, 75 per cent agreed that they were satisfied with the quality of their course, down from 83 per cent last year.

However, the pandemic may have highlighted issues with the availability of learning resources for students. According to this year’s survey:

  • 72 per cent agreed that IT facilities supported their learning well – compared to 83 per cent last year
  • 75 per cent agreed that library resources (books, online services, learning spaces), supported their learning well – compared to 87 per cent last year
  • 74 per cent agreed that they were able to access course-specific resources (equipment, software, facilities), compared to 87 per cent last year.

Students were more positive about their teaching, though there were still declines compared to last 2020:

  • 84 per cent agreed that staff are good at explaining things – compared to 89 per cent last year
  • 78 per cent agreed that staff have made the subject interesting– compared to 82 per cent last year
  • 81 per cent agreed that their course was intellectually stimulating – compared to 84 per cent last year
  • 76 per cent agreed that their course challenged them to achieve their best work – compared to 80 per cent last year

The survey, which had 332,500 responses this year – a 69 per cent response rate – asks students about a range of factors related to their academic experience, including the teaching on their course, assessment and feedback, and how well courses were organised. The OfS is currently reviewing the questions and other aspects of the survey as part of a two-stage review of the NSS to ensure that the survey stands the test of time.

This year’s NSS included specific questions about students’ experience during the pandemic, covering a range of issues. According to the 184,964 students responding to this section of the survey:

  • 73 per cent of students said they received useful information about changes to their course during the pandemic
  • 42 per cent of students agreed that their university or college took sufficient steps to support their mental wellbeing
  • 80 per cent said their university or college has taken sufficient steps to protect their physical safety (providing protective equipment, social distancing on campus, offering distance learning opportunities)
  • 48 per cent said they were content with the delivery of learning and teaching of their course during the pandemic
  • 78 per cent said they were able to access the learning resources they needed – such as lecture notes, course materials, journals, or a Virtual Learning Environment.

This year’s NSS was open to students from 6 January 2020 to 30 April 2020. Questions were asked on a five point scale: Definitely agree; Mostly agree; Neither agree nor disagree; Mostly disagree; Definitely disagree. Overall, the survey shows that:

  • Across all subjects of study, agreement rates (those saying they definitely or mostly agree with the proposition in questions) are lower than in previous years, but the decline varies by subject area. For questions on learning resources, the following subject areas saw a particularly sharp decline: agriculture, food and related studies; architecture, building and planning; design and creative and performing arts; geography, earth and environmental studies; language and area studies; and media, journalism and communications
  • Agreement rates for students who would normally be studying through distance learning have barely changed since 2020. Part-time students and older students – who are more likely to choose to study through distance learning – have seen less of a change in their agreement rates than other groups
  • Most universities and colleges have seen their agreement rates for most groups of questions fall, but some have been more affected than others. A small minority of universities and colleges have maintained their agreement rates despite the pandemic.

Explore the data in full. Read the Insight brief.

Nicola Dandridge, chief executive of the Office for Students, said:

'The NSS has played an important role in capturing student views during what has been an extraordinarily difficult time for students and university staff. This year’s survey provides a valuable picture of students’ perceptions about the quality of their course and overall academic experience during a year in which they have had to contend with so much disruption.

'The questions which ask students how they consider their university or college adapted to the pandemic will be particularly useful given the possibility of some restrictions continuing to apply this autumn. We know that institutions and lecturers worked hard to move courses online, and there have been many examples of innovative approaches to teaching and learning. That said, there are important lessons from the different experiences seen by students at different universities and colleges.

'There is a more general decline in students rating various aspects of their academic experience positively. Although these findings will inevitably reflect the unavoidable consequence of the pandemic, universities and colleges will want to consider their own results to ensure that the quality of their courses remains high, and that they can learn lessons from the pandemic which help support students’ academic experience this autumn and in the future. It is also a concern that only 42 per cent of students agree that their university or college took sufficient steps to support their mental wellbeing. 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.

'The OfS will continue our work on reviewing the NSS. The OfS board agreed a number of changes earlier this year, and the next phase of our review will consider a range of issues. This will include examining potential changes to the questions asked and the way that information is published. We will work closely with students and their representatives, the universities and colleges we regulate, the government and all other interested parties as we take this important work forward.'

Universities Minister, Michelle Donelan said:

'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. I urge vice chancellors to continue their work as we deal with the legacy of this virus.'

Alongside this year’s results the OfS has also published a new Insight brief The National Student Survey: Student experience during the pandemic, which examines how this year’s NSS differs from those in previous years, given the impact of the pandemic. The data from this year’s survey will be published on the Discover Uni website later this year, providing valuable evidence to inform potential students’ choices about where and what to study.


  1. The National Student Survey covers mainly final-year undergraduates studying for higher education qualifications at UK higher education providers and at further education colleges in England, Northern Ireland and Wales. The survey is funded by the four UK higher education regulatory/funding bodies (the Office for Students, the Scottish Funding Council, the Higher Education Funding Council for Wales and the Department for Economy Northern Ireland), and Health Education England.
  2. This year’s survey was completed by 332,500 students, representing a 69.3 per cent response rate.
  3. For this year’s survey, respondents were asked 27 ‘core’ questions covering various aspects of the academic experience. In addition, six questions were asked about how universities and colleges responded to the pandemic. There were also specific questions for students studying degree apprenticeships, and those on an NHS Practice Placement. Universities and colleges also had access to a bank of optional questions, covering issues including work placements, social opportunities and student welfare.
  4. See the full data and our Insight brief.
  5. The review of the NSS is designed help reduce bureaucratic burden while ensuring the NSS remains an important indicator of students’ opinions and experiences. The first phase of the review has now been completed. Phase two will look more widely at the role of the NSS, including which questions should be asked to support regulation and student information across all four countries of the UK. Read the full report from phase one of the review.
Published 15 July 2021

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