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Low-income students are more likely to be missing out on extra-curricular activities, as research finds coronavirus has decimated the university experience (@SuttonTrust) 

 Pandemic has decimated university experience with concern it will affect the wellbeing of students and have an impact on non-academic skills:

  • There is a big drop in students taking part in extra-curricular activities, with those from low-income backgrounds most affected.
  • The number of students living at home during term has risen significantly since 2019, with 64% of those from low-income backgrounds currently living with their families.
  • There is concern that the effect on the university experience will affect the wellbeing of students and lead to higher drop-out rates. Others report ‘Zoom fatigue’ and a lack of social interaction.
  • The experience could also negatively affect crucial non-academic skills.

As many students face another term of remote learning, new research published today by the Sutton Trust looks at the impact of the pandemic on the wider university experience. One piece of research looks at how access to extra-curricular opportunities has decreased in the past year, while a second report looks at the skills these activities develop and the role they play in employability. While we know academic study has looked very different for students this year, today’s research is the first to examine the impact of the pandemic on the wider university experience.

New Research Points to Negative Impact of COVID-19 on Students’ Employability

According to polling of around 900 undergraduate students by YouthSight, participation in extra-curricular activities has fallen considerably during the pandemic. Over half (54%) of students polled reported taking part in student societies or sport in autumn 2019, falling by a third to 36% in autumn 2020, and just under a third (30%) at present. Students were also less likely to have taken part in work experience or to be studying abroad. The number of students not taking part in any of these types of activities was up by more than half, from 23% to 37%.

As might be expected, students living at home are much less likely to take part in wider university life, and the numbers living with their families has increased dramatically from 34% in January 2020, to 43% in autumn 2020 and 58% in February 2021. Those from less well-off homes are consistently more likely to live at home, with almost two-thirds (64%) of those from low-income backgrounds saying they were living at home this term.

During the autumn 2020 term, just under a third of students (29%) said they weren’t taking part in activities beyond their academic course because they were put off by a lack of social interaction during online activities, and a further quarter (24%) cited “Zoom-fatigue” as a barrier.

A second report, also published today, highlights how taking part in activities at university can help students to develop essential life skills, such as communication, resilience, confidence, motivation and leadership; skills which previous Sutton Trust research has shown are highly valued by employers.

Our research shows that in February 2021, the biggest current concern for students was being able to gain skills and experience needed for employment, with 76% saying they were fairly or very concerned about this, and 71% were concerned about the lack of university social life. Almost half (49%) were worried about the cost of living while studying.

Taken together, the Trust is concerned that the fall in access to extra-curricular activities and the disproportionate impact on low-income students is likely to have a knock-on effect on social mobility into the workplace.

The immediate impact on the student experience means there is also a real concern that drop-out rates may increase. A staggering 70% of students are worried about their mental health and wellbeing, while 10% of low-income students said it was unlikely that they would complete the year, compared to a slightly lower proportion (6%) of middle-class students.

While the Westminster government has recently announced £70 million in funds for student hardship, the level of support in England is less than half that of Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland in per capita terms. While many universities have stepped up, many students remain unaware of how to access hardship funds and pastoral support.

New £4.8M Collaboration Launched to Boost Access to Employability Opportunities for Low- and Middle-Income Students

In light of this research, the Sutton Trust is collaborating with JPMorgan Chase to launch a new £4.8m bursary fund today, with the objective of improving access to employability opportunities for lower-income students over ten years.

The fund aims to remove barriers to in-demand, well-paying careers for lower-income university students – 60 percent of whom will be Black and other ethnic minorities - by helping them access extra-curricular and enrichment activities that help improve their employability skills.

From this summer, Sutton Trust alumni who are currently studying at university will be eligible to apply for bursaries of up to £5,000. The one-off payments could cover the costs of an internship, a semester abroad, additional training, as well as participation in activities and events beyond their core academic course.

Bursaries will be offered in every academic year for the next decade or more. JPMorgan Chase will manage the investment of the bursary fund at no cost. From 2022, the bursaries will be open to Sutton Trust alumni and other students who meet similar social mobility criteria.

peter lampl100x100Sir Peter Lampl, founder and chairman of the Sutton Trust and chairman of the Education Endowment Foundation, 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. 

“Students living at home are much less likely to take part in university life.  The number of students living with their families has increased dramatically from 30% overall in 2019 to 64% of low-income students doing so in 2021.

“I’m delighted that through our new partnership with JPMorgan Chase we will be able to offer support to hundreds of Sutton Trust alumni in the decade to come.  This will enable them to take part in truly life-changing experiences which will build important skills such as communication, resilience, confidence, motivation and leadership; skills which previous Sutton Trust research has shown are highly valued by employers.”

Viswas Raghavan, CEO of J.P. Morgan in EMEA, said:

“The COVID-19 pandemic has further exacerbated historic inequities and structural barriers to opportunity for low-income youth – especially those in Black and other ethnic minority groups. Good jobs are key to social mobility and improving the employability of disadvantaged students is an important first step towards a promising, sustainable and well paid career.”

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