Research by Unite Students, and carried out by Opinium, polled 500 students and 500 parents from the UK for their thoughts on COVID-19, student safety and returning to university, ahead of the start of the next academic year.

– Almost nine in ten (89%) students are keen to get on campus once it is safe to do so
– 79% of students say living away from home and being on campus is as important a part of their university experience as lectures and tutorials
– But students are concerned about the impact of COVID-19 on their time at university –  91% are worried about disruption to studies, while 79% are concerned about the impact on socialising
– 94% of current students have been asked to do remote learning, but only 14% prefer this way of studying
– However, there’s a huge amount of trust in universities: 86% of students place their trust in universities to provide necessary safety measures to keep them safe

Unite Students, the UK’s largest provider of student accommodation, has found that almost nine in 10 students (89%) are keen to return to university campuses as soon as it is safe to do so, but remain concerned about the impact of COVID-19 on their studies and social lives – and their parents agree.

New research confirms that university is about more than just studying and that getting back on campus is key to that: 79% of students say that living away from home and being on campus is as important a part of the university experience as lectures and tutorials.

However, students are, of course, concerned about the impact of COVID-19. More than nine in ten (91%) are worried about the disruption to their university course and studies – this is their biggest concern – followed by concerns about the disruption to the social side of the university experience (79%) as well as the longer-term impact on employment opportunities (76%).

The importance of the whole university experience is also reflected in the lack of popularity for remote learning: since the outbreak of COVID-19, 94% of current students have been asked to do remote learning but for most this is not a viable long-term option.

Only 14% prefer this way of studying compared to traditional methods – with 45% saying they like it a lot less.

Parents concerns mirror those of their children

Students’ views about the impact of COVID-19 are also similar to their parents: 78% of parents are concerned about the disruption to the social side of the university experience for their children, while 69% are concerned about isolation and loneliness.

Interestingly, parents are more concerned than students about some areas, for example, career prospects and their physical and mental health.

 Table 1: How concerned students and parents are when thinking about the impact of COVID-19 on students in the following areas:

Impact on future career / work prospects Physical health Mental health
Students 76 % 55 % 65 %
Parents 82 % 68 % 73 %

Source: Opinium June 2020

Student trust in universities is high; but cleanliness a focus for accommodation

Importantly, students believe that universities will do the right thing to keep them safe as they make plans to reopen campuses, with 86% of students trusting that universities will implement the necessary measures and precautions.

Increased hygiene and cleanliness is, unsurprisingly, of huge importance to both students and their parents:

– 97% of students say a robust cleaning regime at their accommodation before they return or start university is important – as do 98% of parents
– 95% of students would also want to see an increased provision of hand sanitiser – as would 94% of parents

Commenting on the survey results, Richard Smith, Chief Executive of Unite Students, said:

“A university education has the power to positively transform lives. The results of this survey confirms that the social skills and independence that university provides are hugely valued by students. This remains true as we all continue to respond to the pandemic with the survey providing valuable feedback on the support needed.

“At Unite we are committed to providing students with the safe and secure environment that they want. Safety and security was our focus before the pandemic and will continue to be the focus moving forward. As the only student accommodation provider to hold the highest 5* safety rating from the British Safety Council, we are aware of our responsibilities to do the right thing. In response to the pandemic we have reviewed our ways of operating across our entire business, investigating and implementing new ways of operating. This focus will support the students that choose to live with us enabling them to enjoy and get the most out of their university experience, something both students and parents have told us they want.”

Nick Hillman, Director of the Higher Education Policy Institute, said:

“Higher education institutions are keen to get back to normal as quickly as they can, so long as no one is put at risk in the process. This survey conclusively proves students are keen to get back to their institutions too. The high levels of trust in how universities are responding to the crisis is impressive. As a sector, we must continue implementing the right measures to protect students and staff, so that this goodwill is not squandered.

“The students in the survey display a mature concern about the impact of the crisis on their social lives, their future careers and their mental health, as well as on their academic studies. It is vital that institutions, support services and accommodation providers work jointly together to ensure the next academic year is as rewarding as possible for all concerned.

“We are lucky to have one of the best higher education systems in the world, so I well understand why students are so keen to get back to campus. If I were leaving school this year, I would still be looking forward to getting away to study for my degree.”