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Introduction

When the first Student Priorities for Wellbeing Report was written in 2019, the landscape of student wellbeing could not have been more different to what it is now. Just days after the report was about to be published the UK went into its first lockdown, and UCL joined higher education institutions across the country in moving to an online delivery model. Many students across UCL have not had the opportunity to set foot on campus for over a year, and a huge number of the Autumn 2020 cohort have been studying remotely from either within or outside the UK for the entirety of their university experience to date. 

This unique set of circumstances provides perhaps the greatest set of challenges to student wellbeing in a generation. Issues of mental health, isolation, a lost sense of community, or worries regarding finances, health or employment are commonplace, and higher education joins the rest of society in a state of enormous upheaval and uncertainty since the effects of Covid-19 began to be felt in the UK in March 2020.

It is within this context that this report is written, outlining some of the main issues that have affected student wellbeing at UCL during the current academic year. As in the previous version of this report, we use the definition of student wellbeing outlined in UCL’s Student Health and Wellbeing Strategy 2019-21, which defines this as:

“A state of physical, mental and emotional health where a student is able to engage meaningfully in learning and contribute to their community. Wellbeing is personal and multifactorial, but typically includes feelings of being socially connected, a sense of direction and belonging, satisfaction with personal achievements, and low levels of anxiety.”

As with the previous version of this report, the main issues will be drawn from reviewing student feedback and data in relation to their wellbeing across core student surveys conducted in 2019/20 and 2020/21, as well as insight from national data regarding student wellbeing under the current circumstances.

For this version of the report, we are also able to call upon research from a wellbeing survey conducted by Students’ Union UCL in partnership with market research firm Redbrick in December 2020 and January 2021, which involved over 1,600 students from across UCL responding to a variety of questions related to student wellbeing during Covid-19.

As with last year, this report will identify areas of good practice and recommendations for improvement in relation to student wellbeing within both UCL and the Students’ Union, with the data and feedback presented within three sections:

  • Mental Wellbeing
  • Social Wellbeing 
  • Physical Wellbeing

Some of the themes considered in this report will be covered under a section matching up with an area of last year’s report, such as Finance within Mental Wellbeing or Community & Belonging under Social Wellbeing. However, some areas which were considered last time (such a section on Sleep or a standalone section on Disability) will not be considered within their own separate section within this report, with new areas such as Student Retention emerging for the first time in this year’s report serving as a reflection of the drastically changed circumstances we now find ourselves in.   

Ultimately, wellbeing is fundamental to student success, with clear evidence that it is a determinative factor in areas of retention and attainment. Whilst the last year has provided a unique set of challenges, there are many lessons we hope to take from this period in order to improve student wellbeing when the student experience begins to move predominantly back on campus and away from remote learning. As with higher education institutions and students’ unions up and down the country, this year has been a difficult period for wellbeing, and it is hoped that this report will help us take forward the areas of best-practice and room for improvement that these challenging circumstances have brought up.

Yasmeen Daoud
Welfare and International Officer, 2020-21

In the Student Priorities for Wellbeing Report 2019, 36 different recommendations were made across the three main areas of student wellbeing; 13 for UCL, 12 for Students’ Union UCL and 11 to be worked on in partnership. Since the report’s completion, the higher education landscape has been significantly altered by Covid, meaning that actions on reports such as this have been challenging as both organisations respond to the pandemic and the university experience moving almost entirely online for this academic year. The table below represents an update on the progress of these recommendations as of May 2021. We welcome any further updates on the recommendations, especially in those areas where the status is unknown.     

Recommendation

Progress Status

For UCL:

Mental Wellbeing

U1: Reword student survey questions around mental health within the New to UCL and Student Experience Surveys to be more inclusive of undiagnosed conditions, using language such as ‘mental health difficulties’ or ‘poor mental wellbeing’.

Status Unknown

Mental Wellbeing

U2: Create a guide Transition Support Plan for students entering UCL with pre-existing mental health conditions.

Status Unknown

Mental Wellbeing

U3: Ensure the implementation of the Student Health and Wellbeing Strategy objective 1F (“Facilitate exchanges of expertise, research and experiences with regard to student health and wellbeing”).

In Progress

Mental Wellbeing

U4: Improve the dedicated information offered to disabled students at UCL throughout their journey, from pre-arrival to graduation.

In Progress

Mental Wellbeing

U5: Work towards meeting the recommendations laid out in the Disabled Students’ Network report and recommendations on disabled students’ experience at UCL. 

Action Complete

Mental Wellbeing

U6: Make the complaints process more accessible.

In Progress

Mental Wellbeing

U7: Increase scholarship and bursary funds available.

Action Complete

Mental Wellbeing

U8: UCL Careers to work more closely with academic departments, improving department specific careers events and guidance.

Status Unknown

Mental Wellbeing

U9: Collect feedback on students’ experiences of signposting throughout their time at UCL.

Status Unknown

Mental Wellbeing

U10: Concentrate on equipping staff so they feel confident in giving support to students at first contact, and then signposting if necessary.

Action Complete

Social Wellbeing

U11: Begin to collect data on the experience of students in relation to their faith at UCL, keeping a clear distinction between faith and culture.

Status Unknown

Social Wellbeing

U12: Conduct an audit on maintenance and cleanliness issues of UCL and privately-owned accommodation raised in recent years.

Status Unknown

Physical Wellbeing

U13: Provide sufficient space on campus for the Students’ Union delivery of Performance Programme and Project Active activity.

In Progress

For Students’ Union UCL:

Mental Wellbeing

S1: Introduce Mental Health First Aid Training for our Welfare Officers across our 300 Clubs & Societies.

In Progress

Mental Wellbeing

S2: Improve awareness of the Heads Up Fund, which ensures that students get quicker access to psychological and counselling support when they need it.

Action Complete

Mental Wellbeing

S3: Collect data on disabled students’ experience across all of its services, including the recurring issues within the Advice Service, information on Welcome Week and issues that are raised in societies.

In Progress

Mental Wellbeing

S4: Invest in an ongoing project to work with UCL to meet the recommendations of the Disabled Students’ Network report and engage with any future disability rights issues within the university.

Action Complete

Mental Wellbeing

S5: Implement the objective set out in the 2017-21 strategic plan to “develop ways of better inducting, training, communicating with, and recognising the hard work of our great student staff team”.

In Progress

Mental Wellbeing

S6: Improve the process of utilising the network of student representatives (including welfare officers in Club & Societies and Academic Reps) to cascade information and guidance to students.

Action Complete

Mental Wellbeing

S7: Review the online information provided regarding support services, making sure it is up to date, accessible and consistent with UCL’s online information.

In Progress

Social Wellbeing

S8: Introduce mechanisms to monitor PGT and PGR satisfaction at the 2020 Welcome Fair and make changes if necessary.

In Progress

Social Wellbeing

S9: Work with faith-based societies to build collaboration and engagement, including collecting more meaningful data on students of faith.

Yet to begin

Social Wellbeing

S10: Improve support for Hall Reps and their ability to influence change and improvement in student accommodation.

In Progress

Physical Wellbeing

S11: Provide more bespoke activities for Postgraduate students that fit around their interested as well as their study / personal commitments.

Action Complete

Physical Wellbeing

S12: Champion the physical and mental health benefits of physical activity and marketing and communication for SU services in this area.

Action Complete

For UCL and Students’ Union UCL:

Mental Wellbeing

B1: Review relevant disability support structures to ensure they fully comply with the Equality Act and with best practise within the HE sector.

Status Unknown

Mental Wellbeing

B2: Look into a communication and research campaign related to full-time students who work over 15 hours per week.

Yet to begin

Mental Wellbeing

B3: Look into areas where further student job opportunities can be increased.

In Progress

Mental Wellbeing

B4: Monitor the career motivations of UCL students and implement any necessary changes in service delivery and student-facing activity.

In Progress

Social Wellbeing

B5: Increase the provision of postgraduate specific social events during the Welcome Period, especially those targeted at PGR students.

In Progress

Social Wellbeing

B6: Ensure the implementation of the Student Health and Wellbeing Strategy objective 2D (“Identify best practice and strengthen the co-ordination of UCL and the Students’ Union’s many induction activities, ensuring that all students receive a welcoming start to their life at UCL”).

In Progress

Social Wellbeing

B7: Conduct research on students’ sense of belonging in order to identify why students don’t feel like part of a community and whether this affects any particular group of students.

Yet to begin

Social Wellbeing

B8: Implement the Student Health and Wellbeing Strategy priority to facilitate the development of inclusive personal networks across UCL.

Status Unknown

Social Wellbeing

B9: Lobby the OfS and government to implement the recommendation from the Augar Report in relation to student accommodation.

In Progress

Physical Wellbeing

B10: Ensure that the development of UCL East includes viable sports facilities.

In Progress

Physical Wellbeing

B11: Develop and implement a UCL Student Sleep Strategy, which includes provision for nap spaces on campus and a guide into healthy sleep.

Yet to begin

a) Mental Health

Even before the pandemic the issue of mental health within society was absolutely crucial, with the previous report noting that according to Mind approximately 1 in 4 people in the UK experience a mental health problem each year, and 1 in 6 people in England report experiencing a common mental health problem such as anxiety and depression in any given week.

This issue has become even more acute since the effects of Covid have begun to be felt across higher education. According to the third stage of the National Union of Students (NUS) Coronavirus Student Survey in November 2020, focussing on mental health and wellbeing, 52% of students reported that their current mental health and wellbeing was worse than before the pandemic, with just 8% stating that it is better. Certain student groups, such as disabled students, trans students and those in rented accommodation, were more likely to report that their mental health and wellbeing was worse.

A variety of specific impacts on mental health were picked out from this research, including increased anxiety, stress and depression. This aligns with the struggles students have reported at UCL; within the Students’ Union UCL Student Wellbeing Survey, 60% of respondents reported that stress and anxiety have had a significant negative impact on their personal wellbeing, with this number rising as high as 68% for final year undergraduates.

Perhaps just as concerning is the fact that of the students who indicated that their mental health was worse, only 20% had sought support, with 69% suggesting that they had not done so. Within UCL, 62% of respondents in the 2020 New to UCL survey stated that they had declared their disability and/or mental health condition to the Student Support & Wellbeing (SSW) team. This figure is slightly down on 2019 (63%) but is significantly higher than 2018, when over half of respondents claimed that they had not disclosed their condition.

In some areas this may be down to an issue of awareness, with the Union’s Student Wellbeing Survey finding that only 57% of respondents were aware of ‘Support and Advice from Students’ Union’ being available (although this figure was much higher at 84% in the New to UCL survey). Despite this, these figures also suggest that more work needs to be done to ensure that UCL students feel comfortable in accessing these services, particularly as the New to UCL survey showed that awareness of how to access ‘Wellbeing, mental health or psychological support’ had actually increased in 2020 (81% vs 79% in 2019).

Many of the mental health issues highlighted within the NUS report relate to the uncertainty for the future that many students currently feel. In the same question mentioned in the previous paragraph, 62% of students said that ‘Uncertainty for the future due to the pandemic’ has had a significant negative impact on their personal wellbeing, with only ‘Feeling my university experience has been impaired by the pandemic’ scoring higher (71%) of more than 30 options.

This is also supported by student testimony from the Communications and Reasonable Expectations Survey run by the Union to assist UCL in their review of its compliance with consumer protection law. One respondent stated that “we are students in the middle of a pandemic coping with the trauma of uncertainty and pressure to keep our grades perfectly in tact”, illustrating how the uncertainty caused by Covid has permeated every aspect of the student experience. It is essential that as teaching and other student activity moves back on campus, students are supported in gaining an increased sense of certainty for the future.

52% of students reported that their mental health was worse than before the pandemic. (NUS Coronavirus Student Survey)

62% of students felt that “Uncertainty for the future due to the pandemic” has had a significant negative impact on their personal wellbeing. (Students’ Union UCL Student Wellbeing Survey)

Recommendations: 

1. UCL continues its commitment towards the University Mental Health Charter, particularly in relation to the areas of cohesiveness of support across UCL as well as inclusivity and intersectional mental health.

2. Students’ Union UCL works towards upskilling student leaders (such as hall reps, welfare officers and academic reps) in mental health first aid, improving advice and information on signposting to support services available at UCL and the Union.

b) Student Retention

Increased issues with student mental health since March 2020 have also amplified the challenge of student retention under the current circumstances. According to data collected by Wonkhe and Trendence in October 2020 in their survey on non-continuation, around 1 in 8 UCL students had considered dropping out on a daily or weekly basis, with almost a third of respondents having doing so at some point.

When asked why students were considering dropping out, many cited difficulties with remote learning, however a significant proportion pointed to feeling overwhelmed and stressed by their higher education experience this year. One respondent reported that they were feeling “a little bit overwhelmed by this whole situation”, with another pointing out that their mental health was “going down the drain”.

The picture is even more bleak in other available data. According the Union’s Student Wellbeing Survey, 22% of students have seriously considered dropping out of university, with this figure above 25% for undergraduate students. Student testimony from the Union’s Communications and Reasonable Expectations Survey related to why students have considered dropping out has painted a bleak picture on the issue:

       “As an introvert in a different continent, I know no one and the lockdown and restrictions make it tougher for me to socialise. The loneliness sets in when it’s been five weeks and I haven’t any friends, making me question the whole ‘college experience’.”

“It has been a very overwhelming transition into term with no end in sight. It is very difficult to keep up, especially when trying to balance the normal academics with this unfamiliar online delivery, not to mention having a healthy work-life balance.”

Whilst these UCL figures should be of significant concern, it is worth nothing that they are by no means an outlier when compared to national numbers. Almost exactly the same proportion of national respondents to the Wonkhe and Trendence survey (13%) had considered dropping out on a daily or weekly basis, and at UCL 22% of Russell Group Universities reported that their respondents had seriously considered dropping out in their equivalent to the Union’s Student Wellbeing Survey.

Nevertheless, it is imperative that the issue of student retention is closely monitored, and that particular attention is paid to the courses, departments and faculties seeing more students dropping out (according to the Student Wellbeing Survey, a student in Social & Historical Sciences is twice as likely to seriously consider dropping out compared to a student from Medical Sciences). Providing the  necessary support for students considering dropping out is also imperative, particularly in cases where the reasons for this are related to them feeling overwhelmed.

When surveyed in October 2020, 1 in 8 UCL students had considered dropping out on a daily or weekly basis. (Wonkhe and Trendence Non-continuation Survey)

26% of undergraduate students have seriously considered dropping out of university, compared to just 19% of postgraduates. (Students’ Union UCL Student Wellbeing Survey)

Recommendations: 

3. Both UCL and Students’ Union UCL commissions a project to look at reasons why students might be considering dropping out and interrupting their studies. 

c) Finance

In addition to students seriously considering dropping out because they felt overwhelmed, or because they were dissatisfied with the teaching or the student experience they received, many reported that finances were a significant factor. According to the National Student Money Survey 2020, 36% of respondents who had considered dropping out of university at some point had done so because of money worries.

The survey also found a link between financial concerns and student mental health more generally, with 81% of students reporting being worried about money due to the pandemic. Given this extremely high figure, it is unsurprising that 58% of respondents stated that their mental health has suffered as a result of Covid-19.

The consequences of the pandemic on student finances have been wide-ranging, with the NUS Coronavirus Student Survey reporting that almost 40% of students had sought financial assistance from family during this period. This dynamic has led to many students reporting difficulties with the circumstances they have faced, such as financial issues stemming from a change in situation:

“Throughout my bachelor’s degree I worked part time to pay for my rent whilst the student fees were taken care of by the Student Loans Company and my Dad had a secure job. That all changed once the pandemic started. My Dad lost his job… I knew the only way I could generate enough income to support my studies was to work nights whilst attending university online.”

On the other hand, many other UCL students have reported that one of the main push factors preventing them from dropping out of their course is the financial commitment they have already made to their studies, or simply not being able to afford discontinuing their studies. For example, a UCL respondent to the Wonkhe and Trendence Non-continuation Survey suggested that dropping out “has come to my mind but I cannot afford such a luxury”, suggesting that the pervasive impact of the pandemic on students’ financial situation is having wide-ranging and often contradictory effects.

Another area in which the pandemic may be having unexpected consequences is in UCL’s ability to attract the best and brightest students regardless of financial circumstance. As mentioned in the previous version of this report, the New to UCL survey asks incoming students ‘What, if anything, might have stopped you from studying your chosen degree programme here?’. The most popular answers to this question are often related to finance, however these figures have fallen in the 2020 survey, with an 8% drop in the number of respondents who selected ‘Cost of living in London’ (37% vs 45% in 2019) and a 5% drop in the number of respondents who selected ‘Scholarships available’ (12% vs 17% in 2019).

This suggests that whilst financial issues were deeply impactful on students during this academic year, and have presented a barrier to those students who did not end up at UCL, there were also some areas in which new students could have some of their concerns eased regarding cost of living and available scholarships. Whilst these figures may be challenging to maintain as the UCL campus re-opens and the vast majority of students return to London, any lessons that can be taken from this year in order to keep reducing these barriers would have a long-lasting beneficial impact.

81% of students reported being worried about money due to the pandemic. (National Student Money Survey)

39% of students sought financial assistance from family during the pandemic. (NUS Coronavirus Student Survey)

Recommendations: 

4. Both UCL and Students’ Union UCL works in partnership to seek to return to pre-pandemic levels of student employment on campus as activity returns on campus, in order to support as many students as possible in readjusting financially following the pandemic.   

d) Employment & Employability

Another key financial impact of the pandemic relates to student employment alongside their studies, with the National Student Money Survey reporting that 74% of respondents rely on part-time work for money. According to the NUS Coronavirus Student Survey wave that took place last summer, 50% of students planned to work either full-time or part-time this academic year when their course begins, however only 40% of respondents were working when the survey reported again in November, with the proportion of students who are not working at all increasing to 49%, up from 31% in July.

Given the wider economic upheaval of the pandemic, many students have found that fewer shifts or even no work at all were available to them, with those who were self-employed or on zero hours contracts particularly at risk. Within the NUS survey 19% of students had reported seeing their hours reduced, with 10% of students reporting being furloughed and 7% being made redundant by their employer. Within this difficult context, it is no surprise that 44% of respondents reported that Covid-19 had a major or moderate impact on their income.

The issue of students’ part-time employment alongside studying is not simply important as it relates to their immediate financial circumstances, but also to their future career prospects and employability. UCL still performs very well in this regard, and is still the highest ranked UK university in the 2020 QS Employability Rankings (which pre-date the pandemic) outside of Oxford and Cambridge. However, UCL’s overall rank has dropped to 22 globally from a high of 17 in 2018, with its overall score dropping from 90 in 2019 to 88 in 2020.

Of the 5 indicators QS uses for their rankings, UCL received their biggest drop in score in Graduate Employment Rate (65.4 in 2020 vs in 2019). There was also a notable drop in score in the Employer/ Student Connections indicator (61 vs 68 in 2019), which is defined by QS as “summing the number of individual employers who have been actively present on a university’s campus over the past twelve months, providing motivated students with an opportunity to network and acquire information”.

Within UCL surveys, a mixed picture is provided regarding the support students are receiving for their careers. In the 2020 Postgraduate Taught Experience Survey (PTES) UCL improved its score for the question related to whether ‘Careers events I have attended or services I have used were useful’ (57% vs 55% in 2019, although this figure was as high as 70% in 2017). New students also reported significantly increased awareness of how to access UCL Careers in the 2020 New to UCL Survey (90% vs 82% in 2019), with this figure being the highest of all support services listed.

However, other data was less encouraging, such as the decrease in the 2020 PTES of students who reported that ‘As a result of the course I feel better prepared for my future career’ (72% vs 74% in 2019). Going further back to the most recent Postgraduate Research Experience Survey (PRES) in 2019, 33% of PGR respondents reported ‘Receiving Advice on Career Options’, which was higher than the sector average (31%) but also masked significant discrepancies between faculties, where respondents from Population Health Sciences (40%) were over 2.5 times more likely to answer yes for this question than those Laws (5%). Moving forward, it is essential that the careers landscape at UCL adapts to reflect changes this year in both student employment throughout the pandemic, and the graduate landscape as we return to normal.

44% of students reported that Covid-19 had a major or moderate impact on their income. (NUS Coronavirus Student Survey)

90% of new students are aware of how to access support from UCL Careers. (New to UCL Survey).

Recommendations: 

5. UCL adapts career guidance provided to students, in order to reflect changes in the graduate landscape post-pandemic.

a) Community & Belonging

One of the major consequences of the pandemic has been the increased sense of isolation many have felt given the restrictions in place since March 2020, and this is an area that has had an enormous impact on students. When asked in the Union’s Student Wellbeing Survey about the issues which had a negative impact on their learning experience, 51% of respondents included ‘A limited interaction with classmates’, the most common factor cited.

Reduced feelings of community and belonging created by the pandemic have also had a significant impact on mental health. According to the Wonkhe and Trendence Non-continuation Survey, almost 60% of UCL respondents reported feeling lonely every day or every week, a figure which was also above 50% nationally. For UCL respondents, these figures were worse for female students (62% vs 53% for male students), and for students with illness or physical or mental health condition (70% vs 53% for those who do not).

This sense of loneliness and isolation may be linked to a reduced sense of community and belonging within the university setting. According to the Student Wellbeing Survey, 85% of students felt that Covid had a negative effect on their social experience at university, a figure which was 20 points worse than the equivalent responses on education. In the 2020 New to UCL survey, the number of new students who had signed up for a club or society was 10% lower than in 2019 (36% vs 46%), which aligns with national figures from the NUS, where the Coronavirus Student Survey reported that 65% of respondents were interacting with clubs and societies less than before the pandemic.

Despite these concerning figures, there is some evidence that students are not entirely dissatisfied with UCL or Students’ Union UCL’s response to the changing circumstances. In the Union’s Student Wellbeing Survey, only 38% agreed that there was a ‘Strong sense of community at my University’, however this was higher than the number of students who disagreed with this statement (27%), with a large number providing a neutral answer (35%).

Within the same survey, when asked ‘How well do you think your University is performing given the current circumstances?’, 52% of respondents felt that UCL was doing ‘Very Well’ or ‘Quite Well’, with only 17% stating that it had done ‘Not very well’ or ‘Not well at all’. For Students’ Union UCL, 47% of respondents felt that they were ‘playing a meaningful role in delivering a positive student experience despite the current circumstances Covid-19 restrictions’, with only 12% disagreeing.

Despite this, it is essential that both UCL and Students’ Union UCL look to restore a sense of community and belonging amongst the student population as restrictions hopefully ease and student activity returns to campus, as it is clear that a reduced sense of isolation will help improve student mental health and their learning experience. This can be achieved through a mix of priorities which pre-date Covid, such as alternative spaces for alcohol-free events and space for club and society activity on campus, as well as emerging ideas, such as more social study space across campus.  

85% of students felt that Covid had a negative effect on their social experience at university. (Students’ Union UCL Student Wellbeing Survey)

Almost 60% of UCL respondents reported feeling lonely every day or every week. (Wonkhe and Trendence Non-continuation Survey)

More than half of students felt that UCL was performing well given the circumstances, compared to just 17% who felt they were not. (Students’ Union UCL Student Wellbeing Survey)

Recommendations: 

6. UCL prioritises space for student clubs and societies to carry out their activities on campus.

7. UCL investigates the possibility of providing more social study space across campus, enabling students to enhance their learning whilst helping bring back a sense of community across UCL after the pandemic.

8. Students’ Union UCL supports clubs and societies with conducting in-person activity as this becomes possible in line with national guidelines.

9. Students’ Union UCL provides alternative evening spaces (such as repurposing its cafes) for alcohol-free events throughout term-time.

b) Housing

Housing has a huge impact on both mental and social student wellbeing regardless of wider circumstances, and the fact that Covid restrictions, lockdowns and remote learning have kept the vast majority of students indoors for the past year has only served to amplify this issue’s importance.

As mentioned last year, this issue is important to consider in its constituent parts, as students can have varied living circumstances depending on the individual and their stage of the UCL experience. Students face different opportunities and challenges depending on their unique housing situation; whether they are in UCL or privately owned halls of residence, are living at home with their family, or are renting in the private sector.

The make-up of where students are living this year has shifted dramatically due to the pandemic. According to the 2020 New to UCL Survey, just 15% of new students are living in UCL managed accommodation compared to 27% in 2019. New students living in a privately rented house, flat or room saw their numbers fall in 2020, however this drop was smaller than for UCL managed accommodation (31% vs 36% in 2019). The number of new students who are living at home has increased markedly, rising to 38% in 2020 from 18% in 2019.

As in previous years, the available data on students living in halls for 2020 presents a mixed picture. In the New to UCL Survey 83% of respondents reported that ‘The UCL staff and student ambassadors checking me in made me feel welcome’, down from 90% the previous year. A similar drop was found in other areas, particularly whether students were ‘aware of all the support available to residents in my halls or house’, with this score decreasing from 80% in 2019 to 72% in 2020.

However, more respondents reported feeling ‘safe in my accommodation’ than in 2019 (89% vs 86%), and more students felt that their ‘accommodation was clean and everything was in good working order when I moved in’ (77% vs 74%), although the 2020 figure was significantly lower than figures reported in previous versions of the survey (84% in 2016 and 2017). As always, there was significant variation between the scores for different halls of residence; for example, respondents in Astor College were almost twice as likely to report their accommodation as being clean and in good working order than Campbell House East (94% vs 48%).

Similar concerns were also highlighted regarding the financial impact of housing during the difficulties of the pandemic. At a national level, the NUS Coronavirus Student Survey reported that over quarter of students were ‘extremely concerned’ or ‘very concerned’ about their ability to pay rent, and over 1 in 5 respondents had reported being ‘unable to pay rent in full over the past 4 months’.

Aside from severe financial worries, some students also reported issues with paying rent for student accommodation they did not use because of the pandemic. For example, one student house in a halls of residence run by a private accommodation provider described in the Communications and Reasonable Expectations Survey how the provider are dealing with this issue:

“They are not reducing or refunding rent despite the circumstances of the pandemic, meaning I have now been paying for almost two months of full rent on a flat I am not using (this is in addition to one month of rent I paid for an unused flat at the beginning of the year, since my arrival was delayed due to visa issues related to covid).”

As we move away from the pandemic, it will be important to reflect on issues regarding cost of living for students in both private rented accommodation or who live in those managed by UCL or private providers. In addition, it would be beneficial for more data to be available regarding the living experience of those in different types of accommodation, enabling us to gain a greater understanding of the issues being faced after a period of great upheaval.    

38% of new students reported that they were living at home this academic year, an increase of 20% compared to 2019. (New to UCL Survey)

More than 1 in 4 students were ‘extremely concerned’ or ‘very concerned’ about their ability to pay rent this year. (NUS Coronavirus Student Survey)

Recommendations: 

10. Both UCL and Students’ Union UCL looks at accommodation data post-pandemic in order to gain a greater understanding of the issues faced during this period of great upheaval. This may include further surveys and research as required, open to a variety of student groups including those in University of London and private student accommodation.

a) Physical Activity

Physical health is a crucial factor in overall student wellbeing, and an indispensable part of this is staying physically active. As with all other areas of this report, this has been hugely impacted by the pandemic. According to the NUS Coronavirus Student Survey, 47% of students were doing less exercise than pre-Covid, compared to just 26% who were doing more.

When compared to similar questions related to other activities, the only areas which saw a more dramatic drop-off in activity were ‘partying in my student accommodation/ a friends house’ and ‘going out to bars and pubs’, suggesting that exercise has been affected by the pandemic as drastically as almost any aspect of student life.

Students are not only doing less physical exercise, they are also showing frustration with this situation. In the Union’s Student Wellbeing Survey, when asked how satisfied UCL students were with various elements of their university experience, only 35% reported of being satisfied with ‘Sport and Exercise’, the lowest score of all options listed.

Within this area, there also appears to be a strong correlation between those students who had seriously considered dropping out of university and those who were dissatisfied with this element of their university experience. Only 19% of those students who strongly agreed that they had considered dropping out were satisfied with sport and exercise, compared to 43% amongst those who strongly disagreed that they had considered dropping out.

As a result of the current situation, at a time in which “students are isolated and anxious, and universities are concerned about the retention of students with the current restrictions”, the British Universities and Colleges Sport (BUCS) released a call to action paper in November 2020, asking the university sector to act now in order to “increase engagement in sport and physical activity for all their students and staff, and make it an essential part of their university strategy”.

The call to action cites a case studies conducted at Sheffield Hallam University, which found that students who participate in sports have a lower withdrawal rate than the university average in a correlation which cannot be explained by other demographic characteristics. According to the call to action, £1 spent on community sport and physical activity generates an economic and social return of £3.91.  

As well as considering this call to action, perhaps the most crucial change in this area that can be made at the present time is to enable sport and physical activities to resume as soon as it is safe to do so. Across various platforms and surveys this year, students have asked the Union to lobby for more in-person events when restrictions allow, such as this student who when asked what UCL or the Union could do to support students who feel lonely suggested that they could “organise some socially distanced in person events, invite us onto campus a bit more, host more university (not just degree) events”. As restrictions ease the opening up of campus should be done in a safe and timely manner, particularly for students involved in sports and physical activity.

47% of students reported doing less exercise than pre-Covid. (NUS Coronavirus Student Survey)

Every £1 spent on community sport and physical activity generates an economic and social return of £3.91. (BUCS Report on the Value of University Sport and Physical Activity)

Recommendations: 

11. Both UCL and Students’ Union UCL permit the return of sport and physical activities across UCL sites as soon as it is safe to do so.

Section 1: Mental Wellbeing

1. UCL continues its commitment towards the University Mental Health Charter, particularly in relation to the areas of cohesiveness of support across UCL as well as inclusivity and intersectional mental health.

2. Students’ Union UCL works towards upskilling student leaders (such as hall reps, welfare officers and academic reps) in mental health first aid, improving advice and information on signposting to support services available at UCL and the Union.

3. Both UCL and Students’ Union UCL commissions a project to look at reasons why students might be considering dropping out and interrupting their studies. 

4. Both UCL and Students’ Union UCL works in partnership to seek to return to pre-pandemic levels of student employment on campus as activity returns on campus, in order to support as many students as possible in readjusting financially following the pandemic.   

5. UCL adapts career guidance provided to students, in order to reflect changes in the graduate landscape post-pandemic.

Section 2: Social Wellbeing

6. UCL prioritises space for student clubs and societies to carry out their activities on campus.

7. UCL investigates the possibility of providing more social study space across campus, enabling students to enhance their learning whilst helping bring back a sense of community across UCL after the pandemic.

8. Students’ Union UCL supports clubs and societies with conducting in-person activity as this becomes possible in line with national guidelines.

9. Students’ Union UCL provides alternative evening spaces (such as repurposing its cafes) for alcohol-free events throughout term-time.

10. Both UCL and Students’ Union UCL looks at accommodation data post-pandemic in order to gain a greater understanding of the issues faced during this period of great upheaval. This may include further surveys and research as required, open to a variety of student groups including those in University of London and private student accommodation.

Section 3: Physical Wellbeing

11. Both UCL and Students’ Union UCL permits the return of sport and physical activities across UCL sites as soon as it is safe to do so.