Public First research into the university student experience – Student Futures 2

In 2021, the UPP Foundation Student Futures Commission set out to understand the impact of the pandemic on the student experience. Nearly three years on this new report highlights changes to the student experience since the publication of the Student Futures Manifesto.

The new research included a comprehensive poll of 1,682 students (conducted by Group GTI), eight in-depth interviews with representatives from institutions who are doing innovative work to support the student experience and eight focus groups with both home and international students.

There are positive findings from the polling, which indicates that the academic experience has recovered well since Covid-19.

  • 79% of students agreed that their university had given them all the support they needed to prepare for the start of term
  • 74% of students were working at or above the academic level they expected to be at
  • 74% of students agreed with the statement “I feel happy at university”

However, findings from the focus groups and backed up by polling data suggest that there is also a growing sense of apathy and disengagement amongst students, with a significant divergence between student expectations and the reality of university life.

The research also found that:

  • 44% of students surveyed said they experienced loneliness during their time at university
  • 44% of students were less engaged with extracurricular activities than they were expecting to be, and a quarter (25%) had never engaged at all.
  • Over a quarter (27%) of students indicated they would feel uncomfortable seeking support from their university if struggling with mental health

The report also highlights challenges around work readiness, with 50% of students not having specific conversations or guidance about future careers from university staff. Meanwhile, 72% of students believe that their universities could do more to integrate workplace skills into the curriculum.
These insights point to a growing sense of apathy and a lack of agency among students over their university experience, leading to a reluctance to participate in both academic and extracurricular activities. This trend is exacerbated by real financial strain and insufficient maintenance loan support. This leaves students struggling to engage with fundamental aspects of university life and many taking up part-time work to support their studies.

Richard Brabner, Executive Chair of the UPP Foundation – the charity which established the Student Futures programme said:

“The higher education sector should be commended for the work they have done to mitigate the longer-term impact of the pandemic on the student experience. But there are now worrying signs around student apathy and engagement. For universities to remain attractive and offer an excellent student experience when times are tough financially, we should take inspiration from the generous and collaborative effort made by colleagues, students and universities during the covid years to secure successful student futures.”

Commenting on the findings, Mary Curnock Cook CBE, Chair of the original UPP Foundation Student Futures Commission said:

“The lost learning crisis of the Covid years has been replaced by a ‘cost of learning’ crisis today. Students are increasingly prioritising onerous work commitments over attendance at lectures, seminars and careers education as well as missing out on the extra-curricular activities which round out the full university experience.
“The increasing unaffordability of full-time undergraduate education for students risks a generation of lost talent and a rising skills deficit.”