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New Higher Ed Research Details Effects of Pandemic on Students, Faculty, Staff

By November 19, 2020

You might be surprised to learn that even in the midst of a global pandemic, during a time when many campuses are empty and classes are conducted remotely, there’s a higher percentage of students who report feeling more connected to advisors (31%), faculty members (32%), and fellow students (34%) than those who say they feel less connected (21%, 20%, and 25%, respectively).

Staying connected during the pandemic

The research snapshot shows that 34% of students feel more connected to other students compared to last year.

This is just one of many findings from the newly-released Global Higher Education Research Snapshot. The research was developed in collaboration with Ipsos and The Chronicle of Higher Education. The survey received a total of 2,200 responses — from 1,125 students and 1,075 staff — across 10 countries representing the U.S. U.K., Netherlands, France, Spain, Australia, and Nordic countries.

Join and The Chronicle of Higher Education for a virtual forum covering the research findings on December 8th.

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If you are based in the U.K., check out a virtual event on the new student experience with Wonkhe on November 24th.

Graphic from Global Higher Education Research Snapshot

The newly-released Global Higher Education Research Snapshot surveyed 1,125 students
and 1,075 staff across 10 countries.

If we’ve learned anything from 2020, it’s that it helps to be flexible in a rapidly-changing world. What we took from research conducted earlier this year is, expectedly, vastly different from what we see now.

Here are the five key findings that emerged from the responses.

1. Staying connected while apart

As mentioned above, more students are feeling more connected to advisors, faculty members, and other students than those who aren’t.

What’s driving this connection? Online communities. Thirty percent of students said a top resource made available to them by their university during the pandemic has been online communities that have connected them with faculty and staff. With 28% of students reporting these virtual communities have made them feel a sense of belonging to their university and 25% saying they help support their wellbeing, the benefits go well beyond just connecting with instructors.

The other, more common type of online community — social media — has also been integral for connection. More than half (52%) of students say they utilize social channels to connect with other students.

And for those who haven’t had access to online communities during the pandemic, missing out on this critical social connector has made an isolating time that much more difficult. Eighteen percent of students said they wish they had online communities to connect with other students.

2. Widening trust gaps within institutions

How institutions responded to the pandemic was top of mind for students across the board. When asked how their institution could have improved their pandemic response, 30% of students cited more transparent decision making as the top answer. Of the surveyed students who transferred to a new school as a result of COVID-19, 25% said their university’s pandemic response was the biggest factor.

Pandemic response wasn’t the only indicator of trust issues, though. Relationships between leadership and students, and leadership and staff factored heavily. Forty percent of students say there’s a trust gap between leadership and instructors, with 42% of those attributing the pandemic to the widening gap. Furthermore, 40% of students said there’s a trust gap between leadership and students, with nearly half (48%) saying the pandemic has widened the chasm between the two.

Students aren’t alone in this sentiment. Forty-one percent of staff — nearly the same percentage as students — reported feeling a trust gap between leadership and instructors, while 37% noted a trust gap between leadership and students.

The biggest opportunity for leadership to close the trust gap with their students and improve their pandemic response? More frequent communication, according to 27% of students surveyed. Additionally, 75% of students said they’d like to receive pandemic-related communications from their institution on a weekly basis or more often.

This insight provides institutions with a viable first step to rebuilding some of that trust and transparency that may have been lost during the pandemic.

Trust gaps within higher education institutions

The research snapshot shows that the pandemic has been a factor in widening trust gaps within institutions.

3. Holistic wellbeing is top of mind

Unsurprisingly, months of lockdowns, social distancing, and canceled plans don’t contribute positively to holistic wellbeing. The research backed that up, as nearly three quarters of students surveyed (73%) identified wellbeing as the biggest challenge facing them during the pandemic. Following closely behind were financial concerns (72%), finding a quiet place to work (71%), and adjusting to taking courses and exams online (70%).

The financial component is an important one during a time when finances are anything but stable. Over twice as many students require more financial aid since last year (39%) than those who now require less (17%). Money is also a top-of-mind issue when it comes to transferring schools. One-in-five students surveyed (20%) are changing universities in favor of a more affordable option.

When asked how their university could have improved their pandemic response, 32% of respondents said they wished their institution would provide more support/resources for student wellbeing and mental health.

4. Students expect more flexible learning options

If the pandemic has taught us one thing, it’s flexibility. And that’s something students wish their institutions offered more of when it comes to learning options.

As the pandemic seemingly creates new challenges by the day, students said universities can improve their pandemic response by offering more flexibility in grading/course assignments (35%) and academic options (33%). While students felt the initial response from their institutions was lacking in this area, they have expectations for increased flexibility as we trudge through the coming months — 27% of students said they expect their universities to offer more flexibility in course scheduling moving forward, and 26% expect more online advising.

The good news — for both students and institutions — is that increased flexibility appears likely as many institutions seem to be investing in more flexible options. Over half (57%) of staff say their universities are investing in new modalities or revenue streams aimed at attracting new students. Of those universities that report increased investments, 60% say that investment will be in more online learning options, 40% for part-time classes, and 38% are investing in competency based learning programs.

5. Revising career and academic goals

The pandemic has created long-term academic uncertainty for students, with 51% saying it has changed their education plans. This is especially true in the U.S., where 58% reported a change in plans.

The effects of the pandemic on the job market has, understandably, made 60% of respondents concerned about finding employment after graduation, forcing students to think critically about how institutions can support their career goals. It’s unsurprising then, that 40% of students reported a top driver leading them to choose one university over another is more help finding internships or jobs.

An even greater percentage — 51% — believe it’s either somewhat or very important that their institution offers access to networking or job fairs, yet only 19% of surveyed students said that their university provides an online community to connect with alumni. Even fewer (18%) said their institution provides career/job-seeking resources.

Findings from the survey offer the expected hurdles facing post-secondary institutions. However, most importantly, this global higher education research provides some much-needed optimism paired with actionable opportunities for universities to recoup some of the missing trust that the pandemic caused.

Learn more by attending the virtual forum with the Chronicle of Higher Education on December 8th. Or if you are based in the U.K. and Europe, check out this virtual event with Wonkhe on November 24th.

About the Author

Nathalie Mainland, Senior Vice President and General Manager of Education Cloud at

Nathalie Mainland
Senior Vice President and General Manager of Education Cloud at

Nathalie Mainland, Senior Vice President and General Manager of Education Cloud at, has over 15 years of senior-level experience working at technology and education organizations, including Blackboard, Autodesk, and Pearson. Follow her on Twitter @nmainland.