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Students and universities: on the same page about coronavirus?

With campus accommodation shutting down, classes moving online, and travel restrictions impacting international and study-abroad students, there’s no doubt that students have been particularly affected by the COVID pandemic.  

With universities let out for summer, we thought it would be interesting to take a look at how students are discussing the impact of coronavirus on their studies and compare this to the responses and action plans of universities.

Using Relative Insight’s text analysis platform, we compared universities’ coronavirus response pages with discussions from student forums.

Here’s what we found…

What are the students talking about?

Online lectures, labs and tuition fees:
Among students, there was a large amount of dialogue surrounding classes moving online. Many expressed concern over receiving an inferior quality of education in the online format. This concern was amplified for students in science, engineering and other applied disciplines where labs make up a big component of their programmes.

The phrase ‘online teaching’ was 6.5x more prevalent among the student conversation, and the word ‘labs’ 24.5x.

These discussions were often accompanied with annoyance about paying full tuition fees for online modules – although there was consensus that it was unlikely universities would lower fees given the financial pressure they are finding themselves in.

Deferral and social life:
Students clearly see university as both an educational and social experience. The phrase ‘social life’ was significantly present in the student sample while completely absent from university responses.

Social life appeared to be a particularly important consideration for soon-to-be freshers who often cited social life in connection with the topic of deferral. Linked with the discussion of deferral was conversation around how mass deferral could disadvantage the next batch of year 13s as they compete for spots next year.

The bottom line for students is that there is a tremendous amount of uncertainty. This is shown by the fact that the topic ‘unlikely’ is 3.8x more prevalent among the student conversation along with frequent mentions of phrases such as ‘nobody knows’, ‘second wave’ and ‘next year’.

This uncertainty is spurring discussion about whether people should commit to student accommodation for next year, given the possibility that all learning will be virtual. Students are considering whether they are better off living at home and commuting for any in-person learning that may take place.

How are the universities responding?

Support, guidance and safety nets:
Signalling that they understand the great deal of uncertainty being expressed by students, university responses displayed a heavy focus on offering help, guidance and support. Related terms were 11x more prevalent among the university responses than the student discussions.

The offering of support extended beyond academic support with mental health and counselling services often highlighted.

Taking support to the next level, the phrase ‘safety net’ is 10.5x more prevalent within university communications. By developing such policies, universities are acknowledging the challenges of virtual learning and taking measures to prevent any negative impacts to students’ academic standing.

Topics, words and phrases relating to ‘assessment’ were 28x more likely to be found in the university responses. With assessment being core to students’ ability to progress through their programmes, this didn’t come as a surprise.

The general lack of discussion around assessment among the student population may be a reflection of the fact that universities made communication on this topic a clear priority and as such there was little ambiguity on the topic.

What are the universities missing?

The responses of universities capture many of the key concerns expressed by students – specifically regarding academic matters. Universities clearly recognise the sense of uncertainty and are making it a priority to emphasise the support resources available.

There are, however, several areas where universities have an opportunity to address student concerns:

  • Providing specific details on how labs will be conducted for students studying sciences, engineering and other applied disciplines
  • Offering flexible options when it comes to committing to student housing for the next academic year
  • Working with faculty to communicate what is being done to preserve the quality of education
  • Establishing mechanisms to capture and act on feedback regarding the delivery of modules virtually

When it comes to understanding language, it’s all Relative. The Relative Insight language comparison platform analyses language data (a.k.a. words!!) from any source to extract the important differences and similarities between audience groups, brands, and individuals.

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