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‘Zoom-fatigue’ and lack of social activities could increase university dropouts

By Eleanor Busby, PA Education Correspondent

Students’ experience during the pandemic – including a lack of social interaction and “Zoom-fatigue” – could increase university drop-out rates, a report has warned.

University students may be left with more wellbeing issues and fewer vital non-academic life skills after coronavirus has “decimated” the wider university experience, according to the Sutton Trust charity.

There has been a large drop in students taking part in extracurricular activities in a year when events have largely moved online, with those from low-income backgrounds most affected, a survey found.

As many students face another term of remote learning, the poll found nearly three in four (70%) students said this month that they are worried about their mental health and wellbeing.

The polling, of more than 850 UK undergraduate students by YouthSight, suggests one in 10 low-income students said it is unlikely that they will complete the year, compared to 6% of middle-class students.

Figures from the Higher Education Statistics Agency, which precede the pandemic, show that more than a fifth of young UK full-time students dropped out after their first year at some universities in 2018-19.

Overall, 6.7% of UK full-time students taking their first degree under the age of 21 did not continue past their first year of the course in 2018-19.

“Given the challenges students are facing this year, there is a real concern that drop-out rates may increase following the pandemic,” the report says.

Less than two in five (39%) students reported taking part in student societies or sport in the autumn term, and this has fallen further since Christmas to just 30%, the survey found.

This is significantly lower than before the pandemic when more than half (54%) of students reported taking part in student societies or sport in 2019.

During the autumn term in 2020, 29% of students said they were not taking part in student societies during the pandemic because they were put off by a lack of social interaction during online activities.

Nearly one in four (24%) cited “Zoom-fatigue” as a barrier as they said they did not want to spend more time online after completing lectures and course content virtually, the report says.

But the biggest current concern for students is being able to gain skills and work experience needed for employment amid the pandemic, with 76% saying they are worried about this, the survey found.

More students are also now living at home during the pandemic, where they are less likely to take part in extracurricular activities, with 58% of students saying they are currently living away from campus.

Those from less well-off backgrounds are more likely to be living at home, with almost two-thirds (64%) of those from working-class backgrounds saying they have spent this term living with their family.

The Sutton Trust is concerned that the fall in access to extracurricular activities and the disproportionate impact on low-income students is likely to have a knock-on effect on social mobility into the workplace.

A £4.8m bursary fund is being launched by the charity and JPMorgan Chase with the objective of improving access to employability opportunities for lower-income students over a decade.

From this summer, disadvantaged students will be eligible to apply for bursaries of up to £5,000 which could cover the costs of an internship, a semester abroad or additional training.

Sir Peter Lampl, founder and chairman of the Sutton Trust, said: “For many students additional activities, such as student societies and sport, are as important in shaping their future as their academic courses.

“It’s of real concern that low-income students are more likely to miss out on these formative experiences.”

The report comes after university students on practical courses in England were told they could return to campus for in-person teaching from next month.

But for all remaining students, the Government said it will review options for pupils to return to face-to-face lessons by the end of the Easter holidays.

Education Secretary Gavin Williamson said about 40% of university students will be able to return for face-to-face teaching from March 8.

A Universities UK (UUK) spokeswoman said: “Universities understand that this has been a difficult time for many students and all universities are developing plans to support students to have the fullest possible experience when they return to campuses, ensuring that there are additional opportunities to develop outside of their core learning.

“Universities and careers advisors are also being creative and innovative, working with businesses and mentors to identify ways to help boost employability skills digitally while restrictions continue.

“UUK is speaking with government about how they can best work with universities to support this year’s graduates as they enter a challenging labour market.”

– YouthSight surveyed 904 students between November 13 and 16 in 2020. YouthSight then surveyed 887 students between February 5 and 12 this year.

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