Jun 27, 2021 00:00 (CEST)
After nearly a year and a half since the outbreak of the Covid-19 pandemic, universities are no longer what they used to be. International mobility has been affected heavily, many universities faced severe financial problems, and campuses were locked down for weeks or even months. Consequently, the relation of students to their universities changed dramatically: teaching had to be switched almost from one day to the next with presence learning shifting to digital, or blended modes of delivery. Many students who started their coursework in 2020 reported that until now they have never been on their campus, and never met their teachers personally.
As higher education is a highly self-reflexive system, studies on the impact of Covid-19 have been conducted and published. Recently the European Commission published a synopsis of the various studies drawing on 14 rapid-response surveys carried out in 2020 by university networks, student organisations and researchers, as well as over 50 journal articles, reports and publications. This synopsis looked at short- and long-term aspects as well as conclusions on different levels of action. In the first months of the pandemic their focus was on financial impacts and on the negative effects on international mobility (which is closely linked in some countries). Other studies focused on the student experience and student life, but many of their results and conclusions of the impact of Covid-19 on students (for example, on the growing incidence of depression) are not specific to higher education, but rather reflect general impacts of the pandemic on social life and on individuals.
A crucial question, so far not really addressed, is whether the recently enroling student Covid-cohorts feel that they have suffered from the restrictions and hence face future career disadvantages.
To answer this question, U-Multirank can link specific questions and data on the impact of Covid-19 and the pandemic management with its general data on institutional performance and the views of students on their learning experience. In particular, U-Multirank data allow for comparisons between the pre-pandemic situation, based on previous data collection, and the pandemic situation. Additionally, U-Multirank data also allow for distinguishments between subjects and academic fields, which is largely overlooked in existing studies.
Due to the outbreak of the pandemic, universities worldwide had to close their campuses for often long periods of time. From one day to the next universities had to switch from in-person classes to digital and blended classes. According to U-Multirank's institutional data, in autumn 2020, 92% of all courses were held either fully online or in a blended form, compared to only 10% before the pandemic. Universities worldwide were ready to make this digital turn within the shortest time frame.
Based on the most recent U-Multirank student survey, which ran from October 2020 to January 2021, around two thirds of the 30,000 respondents rated the overall pandemic management of their university either as ‘very good’ or ‘good’, while only 6% gave a negative rating (‘bad’ or ‘very bad’).
At the same time there are substantial differences between subjects. Students in the medical subjects (incl. veterinary science) were less satisfied than students of other subjects, such as psychology, social work or agriculture.
Offering digital education helped many universities to sustain their classes and avoid cancellations. The various educational programmes show large differences. In social work and psychology, around 70% of the universities faced no cancellations at all and all classes took place. However, in medical fields cancellations were higher. In dentistry, nursing and medicine a substantial number of courses were cancelled - with more than half of dentistry and nursing courses alone being cancelled. In these fields, practical courses including contact to other persons (patients) are highly relevant and could not easily be digitalised.
We expect that the differences in student satisfaction with the pandemic management are linked to problems of continuing the provision of courses in these subjects.
All in all, a clear majority of students across all subjects are optimistic that they can continue their courses as planned after the pandemic.
However, students in the medical subjects particularly, fear more often than others that this may not be possible. In social work, psychology and agriculture almost 80% of the students rated their expectations to be able to continue as planned with ‘very good’ or ‘good’ – compared to less than 60% in dentistry, and less than 70% in medicine and nursing.
The assessment of a number of aspects, including ‘IT-provision’ and ‘contact to teachers’ (and other aspects not listed in the graph as organisation of programmes) have improved from 2018 to 2021 (the graphs show the mean scores, with ‘1’ marking the positive end of the scale). However, the overall assessment of the learning situation was rated more negatively in 2021 by students of all the subjects, with the most negative scores in dentistry, medicine and nursing.
Furthermore, specific aspects that are affected by the pandemic are seen more negative by students now: all indicators related to ‘practical teaching’ and ‘inclusion of work experience’ suffered from the pandemic situation. Additionally, ‘inclusion of work experience’ is rated particularly negative in social work, nursing and medicine, where this implies direct personal contacts (to clients, patients, etc.). For medicine this is confirmed in more detail by specific indicators looking at, e.g. clinical education, bedside teaching and clerkships.
In their efforts to deal with the pandemic and to compensate for its negative effects thereafter, universities and higher education policies have to take into regard that there isn’t a one-size-fits-all approach for all subjects. In general, practical education and contacts to work environment (e.g. excursions, internships) suffered from the restrictions caused by the pandemic. Nevertheless, in many subjects (not only the social sciences and the humanities, but also the sciences and engineering) new forms of online and blended learning were helpful to deal with the pandemic and may even bring new opportunities for innovative teaching in the future. In other subjects where personal interaction and contacts are a major aspect of the education and qualification process – medicine, dentistry, nursing – the replacement of (practical) teaching by online formats is more difficult or has so far proven to be impossible. This is indicated by the high percentage of courses that were cancelled in these subjects.
After the pandemic, these courses will by large be possible again. But the most recent cohort of students (entrants in spring 2020 already spent more than a full academic year, respectively three semesters under Covid-19 restrictions) - particularly those in the health subjects mentioned - fear that it will become difficult to graduate in a ‘normal’ way and with the ‘regular’ set of qualifications and skills. Here universities are challenged to introduce specific means and programmes to compensate for these negative effects of teaching and learning under the pandemic.
“A key message of the U-Multirank analysis is that in designing the ‘new normal’ post pandemic, we must concentrate efforts and resources particularly on those disciplines that have more catching up to do and to devise novel ways to deliver virtual teaching and learning experiences in them. Otherwise, we are doomed to repeat this experience when the next pandemic inevitably arrives.”
U-Multirank is a non-commercial, global, multi-dimensional transparency tool, combing institutional rankings of entire universities with a set of 28 subjects rankings. Each ranking presents more than 30 performance indicators, covering five dimensions: teaching & learning, research. Knowledge transfer, international orientation and regional engagement.
The major aim of U-Multirank is to make diversity of higher education visible – hence it includes a diverse set of higher education institutions with different missions and different profiles. Our unique interactive web tool allows for comparisons among institutions with similar profiles.
All results and data are freely accessible under: www.umultirank.org
U-Multirank is a multi-perspective ranking, combining data from different data sources: data from national statistics, data from bibliometric and patent data bases, institutional and subject related data provided by institutions and a student survey based on responses from 100,000 students.
U-Multirank’s 2021 edition will be published online in September and will include more than 2,000 higher education institutions from nearly 100 countries worldwide.