SPOTLIGHT ON: Universities and Higher Education – (Part 2)

The spotlight falls back onto Higher Education in the latest Mustard sector spotlight. Irina Dimitriade (senior research manager at Mustard) shares her insights around the likely impact of COVID-19 on both learning provision and the wellbeing / mental health of students.

In his book The Power of Habits, Charles Duhigg argues that new behaviours are more likely to be embedded into new habits if adopted when we are thrown out of our usual routines, and we experience changes in our lives.

The COVID-19 pandemic has certainly made us adopt new behaviours fast, and it’s been going on for enough time now for us to start asking ourselves – what is going to stick, what has already become a new habit and what will be discarded?

Gaining a deep understanding of how attitudes, motivations and expectations have changed as a result of newly adopted habits will be crucial when it comes to developing a higher education proposition that is adapted to the new realities, and also future proofed for a post-pandemic world.

Firstly, what does this mean for Learning Provision?

When it comes to learning provision, changes have happened fast. Experts within the higher education sector argue that a transition towards more online learning was in the making, but its roll-out was supposed to be gradual and take years. The pandemic has fast tracked this with an incredible speed. Since March 2020, online and, when possible, blended learning (a mix of in-person and online classes) have been the main models offered by UK universities.


The primary goal of this immediate change was ensuring the safety of students and staff. However, this also created space for more possibilities to take shape – the flexibility and convenience of being able to learn (and teach) when you want and from wherever you want; greater engagement in students noticed by staff; a fast-tracked upskilling in online learning provision, exploring new technologies and standardising this new way of teaching.

The impact of this rapid transition has been mixed, which was to be expected to some extent. According to the Students COVID Insights Survey conducted by the ONS in October and November 2020, 29% of students reported being dissatisfied or very dissatisfied with their learning experience in the autumn term, primarily due to the quality of learning and learning delivery.

Furthermore, when students were asked whether they felt equipped to engage with online learning, 16% disagreed or strongly disagreed. This is corroborated by staff too, with additional support services having been put in place to address digital poverty and support those experiencing difficulties accessing education this way.

Despite this though, 81% of students also reported that they would be likely or extremely likely to continue with their studies if all university teaching was moved online in January.

Face to face learning isn’t expected to go away completely though. No virtual classroom can replace the valuable interactions and inspiring moments that students experience when they attend an in-person lecture. There is, however, an expectation that in-person time will be valued differently and used for deeper, more meaningful discussions that inspire students.

The data indicates that new habits are emerging, which also means new expectations of higher education providers from students and prospective students.

 So what does this mean for those responsible for insights within Higher Education institutions? Quite simply, we need to understand where, how and to what extent these expectations have changed, and what this means for the design and delivery of services and communications.

spot light on education

Secondly, what does this mean for student wellbeing and their mental health?

Learning provision is not the only aspect of the student experience, and the past year has had a significant impact on students’ wellbeing and mental health too.

The same ONS Students COVID Insight Survey found that students reported lower levels of life satisfaction, life happiness, and higher levels of anxiety, compared with the general population. Online learning has also meant higher levels of loneliness amongst students.

Moreover, 53% of students reported being dissatisfied or very dissatisfied with their social experience in the autumn term, mainly driven by limited opportunities for social or recreational activity, limited opportunities to meet other students and limited access to sports and fitness facilities.

Periods of transition and great change also mean conflicting experiences as we navigate and try to make sense of a new reality. When it comes to the wider student experience, gaining a deep understanding of the “lived realities” of how the past year has been experienced, and students’ key areas of frustration, annoyance, unmet needs, etc. will be crucial. This insight is essential to design a student experience that combines the convenience and flexibility of remote learning, without neglecting wellbeing, social connection and intellectual inspiration.

So what does this mean for those responsible for insights within Higher Education institutions? We need to make sense of this vast array of conflicting experiences to create compelling and differentiated propositions that are “proofed” for the increasingly virtual future we have found ourselves launched into.

The first step is to simply pause, observe and listen, engaging with priority audiences to truly understand the implications of the past year on the wider student experience.  Then, it’s time to co-create! Get your students hands-on in the design of the future with proposition development, customer journey mapping, U&A studies, etc..

Finally, reasons to be optimistic!

Although the number of International Students is expected to fall as a result of the pandemic, the opposite trend is expected when it comes to domestic students, and especially postgraduate students. With an unreliable job market, many young people might choose to remain in education and continue their studies. According to Nick Hillman, Director of the Higher Education Policy Institute,

“recessions tend to mean that people want more education because the alternatives – underemployment or unemployment – are worse, and having more skills can protect you against the economic chill winds…the end result may be a more highly skilled workforce at the end of the current crisis”.

If, as we hope, more students and prospective students are going to be considering higher education in the near future, then NOW is the time to ensure your learning provision, student experience and brand proposition are fully aligned to the new habits, the new needs and the new expectations.

To discuss the issues raised in this blog in more detail, please feel free to get in touch with Irina –

Read part 1 here