The impact of Covid-19 on university students Contents

2How the Covid-19 outbreak has affected university courses

5.On Wednesday 18 March the Prime Minister announced that schools would be closing to most pupils,4 and they are only now in the process of reopening to some students. Universities, however, have been permitted to remain open throughout the outbreak. This does not mean that university courses have continued as normal. The Covid-19 outbreak and the restrictions and advice put in place by the Government have fundamentally changed the ways that universities are operating, and the experiences students are having. On 13 March Universities UK—which represents 137 UK universities—stated that the way that universities deliver their teaching and other services was likely to change, and that some of the measures that were being implemented included:

a)Shifting to online delivery of teaching and learning wherever possible;

b)Encouraging home working of students and staff where appropriate;

c)Postponing March/April graduation ceremonies, and

d)Changing examination arrangements.5

We consider below the impact of these, and other, changes on students.

The delivery of teaching

6.The delivery of university courses differs across universities and individual courses, but many students feel that their courses have suffered as a result of the Covid-19 outbreak. We conducted a survey of people who had signed relevant petitions, which received over 25,000 responses from current students. The vast majority of students who responded told us that teaching hours at their university had fallen and they were dissatisfied or very dissatisfied with the quality of education they were currently receiving. These results are echoed in responses to our request for views on the Student Room online forum.6 One user told us:

Half my lecturers just stuck up last year’s recordings. The others made the effort to record from home their stuff or do it live and we could type questions they answered during the breaks […] we haven’t had loads of things marked […] without feedback, we go into exams blind as to what things we need to improve in essay techniques.

Another user said:

I don’t find the creation of interactive PowerPoints - which just slow note-taking and half the time don’t work to be a maintained standard. Nor is uploading last years, or a year further backs stream capture. I wasn’t paying for a lecture delivered to another cohort two years ago. Or when a capture is uploaded as audio only and they start talking about things on screen but with no indication of where they are pointing. Not to mention as a clinical course our hands on practicals being cut crucially short this year. It isn’t a case of will the medics, dentists and vets of this year come out as less trained individuals but a question of how much poorer will their practice be. The future care of humans and animals will suffer.

The NUS has conducted its own “Coronavirus and Students Survey” of 10,000 students, which found that 20% of respondents who had been offered online learning did not agree that they were able to access it adequately.7

7.It appears that changes to the way university courses are being delivered have disproportionately affected particular groups of students. The Office for Students (OfS) recently told the Education Committee that students from disadvantaged backgrounds face particular challenges accessing online teaching, stating:

We are acutely aware of the challenges facing all students but particularly disadvantaged students when moving from face-to-face learning to online and distance learning. In terms of how many students are unable to access online learning, it is not a binary thing that you either can or cannot. We understand that many students might, for instance, have weak wi-fi or not have the appropriate hardware or are not living in an environment where it is easy for them to work because they are living in a crowded household. It tends to be all manner of things coming together.8

These impacts were also borne out in our survey.9 The NUS also told the Education Committee about challenges that international students are facing, stating that many of them:

are unable to access content because of restrictions in their home countries and, therefore, unable to complete their courses or get the same quality of learning as their colleagues.10

8.While universities have made enormous efforts to continue to provide courses since the outbreak began, the transition to online teaching has been a challenging one. Professor Julia Buckingham, President of Universities UK, told us:

[it] is not a simple process. It has taken colleagues time to adapt the material they have and, of course, it is a new experience for the students. It is something that is very different. It has been a learning curve—it is perfectly fair to say that—for all of us.11

The Minister underlined the work that had been undertaken to continue university courses, telling us “universities have risen to the challenge and really invested quickly in innovative technology”, and that “[o]nline learning does not necessarily always mean inferior learning.”12 NUS President Zamzam Ibrahim acknowledged this, stating that “institutions have worked as hard as they possibly can to be able to support students”, but also saying: “I do not think they have the support to be able to do that and have not been given proper, clear guidance as to what quality education looks like.”13

9.The Minister for Universities acknowledged that “the impact on students has been really stark at a very vulnerable time and important time in their lives in terms of education”, and that “students have had extra pressure added on to them.”14 When asked what assessment the Government had made of the quality of university teaching during the outbreak, the Minister told us it was not the Government’s job to assess whether there is quality there, and said “[t]hat is why we set up the Office for Students, whose primary focus and primary customer are the students.”15 She told us that the Office for Students (OfS), which regulates the higher education sector in England, was currently exploring concerns about the quality of education, and would be taking a focused approach to investigating concerns.16

Assessments and qualifications

10.It is still not yet clear exactly what the outbreak will mean for how students are assessed and how they are able to secure their qualifications this year. The OfS has issued guidance about quality and standards during the pandemic. This states that it expects:

that providers should make all reasonable efforts to enable students to complete their studies, for achievement to be reliably assessed, for qualifications to be awarded securely.17

The survey conducted by the NUS showed that 74% of students were worried about the impact of the pandemic on their final qualifications.18

11.Given the disruption to courses, the NUS has called for all non-essential formal exams to be cancelled for first- and second-year students, asking institutions to find flexible solutions to help these students progress to their next stage of learning.19 They have also called for a national approach to exams and assessments, with a “no detriment” policy to ensure students obtain “at least their average grade so far”.20 Professor Julia Buckingham responded to the requests made by the NUS, stating:

Central to the approaches being taken by universities is a principle of fairness and Universities UK is encouraging its members to consider any adjustments in this light. This means recognising the exceptional circumstances in which students are being taught and assessed while also ensuring that for those individuals graduating or progressing with their studies this year, the qualifications they are awarded hold their value and meet the requirements of accrediting bodies so as to enable students to progress smoothly into their chosen profession.21

The success or otherwise of such endeavours and the true impact on students’ qualifications and career prospects remain to be seen.

Access to university facilities

12.In addition to the teaching of courses, the Covid-19 outbreak has meant university students are also unable to access university facilities, which are also funded by tuition fees.22 These facilities, including those with a clear educational purpose such as libraries and laboratories and more holistic services such as advice centres, have also been closed to comply with social distancing. As a result, students are not receiving the benefit of facilities that they nevertheless continue to pay for. This impacts all students, but particularly those courses involving practical elements such as studio or lab-based work. Sophie Quinn, the university student who started the petition calling for students to be reimbursed this year’s fees due to Covid-19 and strikes, told us that:

There are people doing arts degrees and creative degrees […] who do not have access to any facilities at all but are still expected to produce pieces of work to the same standard.23

Practical challenges

13.Students are also facing practical challenges as a result of the Covid-19 outbreak. Almost half of the students who completed our survey told us they were currently paying for university accommodation they don’t need. Others have seen their income fall as they have been furloughed, put on reduced hours, unpaid leave, or been made redundant.24 Zamzam Ibrahim told us that:

The immediate concern is knowing that a lot of students have experienced a huge loss of income. We know that students do not have access to universal credit like most of society so, when they come out of pocket, they do not have access to any form of state benefits.25

The Minister told us that the Government had helped universities to enhance their hardship funds, to enable them to look after students.26


14.While universities have not been required to close by the Government, they have felt compelled to suspend face-to-face teaching, and this has resulted in significant disruption to the delivery of university courses. In deciding whether universities should remain open, and how teaching should continue, the priority has rightly been the safety and wellbeing of students and staff. The Government has said that its number one priority is the safety of students and staff.27 Similarly, in setting out its response to the outbreak, Universities UK stated that they were prioritising student and staff wellbeing by reinforcing and encouraging adherence to public health advice.28 The UCU has said that staff and student health is their number one priority,29 and the NUS has said that the health, safety, and wellbeing of students is an absolute priority.30 While it is right that the health and wellbeing of students and staff should be the priority of the Government and universities, social distancing measures have unavoidably resulted in huge changes to the way in which universities have delivered courses, and the experiences of students on these courses.

15.The Covid-19 outbreak has hugely disrupted the education of university students. A significant number of students have told us they are not receiving the standard of education that they had expected, feel they are entitled to, or which offers true value for money in light of the amount they are paying in tuition fees. Many students have experienced difficulties accessing the online content that has been made available, particularly those from disadvantaged backgrounds, and courses where students need to use university facilities have been particularly affected. We have heard from many students who feel that the way in which courses are currently being delivered does not represent value for money for the tuition fees they pay. Students have also faced a number of practical challenges as a result of the outbreak, including in many cases loss of income and difficulties with accommodation.

16.We have heard evidence that universities, lecturers and support staff have made tremendous efforts to continue to deliver university courses in uniquely challenging circumstances, and some students have continued to receive an excellent education. In at least some cases universities have been able to provide courses in a way that students believe is good value for money. We do not therefore believe that there should be a universal refund or reimbursement of tuition fees to all university students.

4 Prime Minister’s Office, PM statement on coronavirus: 18 March 2020

7 National Union of Students, NUS responds to OIAHE annual report, April 2020

8 Q235, Oral evidence taken before the Education Committee on 18 May 2020, HC 254 [Nicola Dandridge]

9 Annex

10 Q206, Oral evidence taken before the Education Committee on 18 May 2020, HC 254 [Zamzam Ibrahim]

11 Q38 (unless stated otherwise all references to oral and written evidence in this Report refer to evidence reported under HC 252, The Government’s response to Coronavirus)

13 Q225, Oral evidence taken before the Education Committee on 18 May 2020, HC 254

18 National Union of Students, NUS responds to OIAHE annual report, April 2020

22 Universities UK, Where student fees go, September 2013

27 Government response to e-petition 300628, Close all universities down for an appropriate amount of time amidst COVID-19, 24 March 2020

30 National Union of Students, NUS President’s statement on Coronavirus, 18 March 2020

Published: 13 July 2020