Student satisfaction with university education dropped sharply in 2020, reaching its lowest level since the survey began in 2012.
On average, only 68.4% of students nationally said they were satisfied with their undergraduate education during the pandemic-hit year, down 10 percentage points from 78.4% in 2019.
The Quality Indicators for Learning and Teaching survey, which has surveyed undergraduates since 2012, polled 565,829 students from 29 universities, and 70,266 from 35 non-university higher education providers.
The report authors noted that the survey was taken “in August/September 2020 at the height of the lockdown”, which likely contributed to poor results, particularly in Victoria.
As early as August last year, educators warned that the quality of the student experience could drop as the government reduced overall funding to universities, universities cut staff numbers, and domestic enrolments rose.
Among the broad decline in satisfaction, students said “learner engagement” specifically suffered. For the first time since the survey began, a minority of students said they were satisfied with learner engagement, at only 43.2% (down from 59.9% in 2019).
However, students said that teaching quality itself remained high – dropping only from 80.9% to 77.6%.
And international students rated their education lower than domestic students, with 63% satisfaction among international students, and 70% among domestic.
Most of the country’s public sandstone universities, known as the Group of Eight, dropped 10 percentage points or more. Victorian universities especially were hard-hit, as the impact of lockdowns kept students from attending campus.
Only 52.3% of students at the University of Melbourne said they were satisfied with their education in 2020 – down from 77.6% in 2019, which was the largest fall in the country.
Monash University scored 60.4% satisfaction (down from 78.6% in 2019), while RMIT scored 62.1% (down from 78.5%).
In New South Wales, the University of Sydney scored 63.6% satisfaction, dropping 10 percentage points from 74.2%. The University of Technology Sydney scored 65.7% (down from 77.4%) and Western Sydney University scored 67.1% (down from 76.2%).
The University of New South Wales scored 59.7%, but this was only a drop of three percentage points from last year’s 62.9%.
University of Queensland scored 66.3% (down from 80%), Australian National University 67.9% (down from 79.6%), University of Adelaide 69.7% (down from 79.6%), and University of Western Australia 68.4% (down from 79.7%).
Science and mathematics students recorded the largest drop in satisfaction (12 percentage points) – from 80% nationally in 2019 down to 67% in 2020. Medicine was not far behind, dropping from 79% to 67%.
No discipline saw increased satisfaction, but teacher education only dropped 4% – the smallest drop.
The survey report authors said that online learning during the pandemic likely contributed to the lower scores. They wrote that in the 2020 dataset it was “extremely difficult to consistently and accurately identify the mode of attendance for any given student”, compared to previous years’ datasets.
They added that students “may in part … be reacting to the broader Covid-19 environment and its impact on their higher education experience”.
The highest rated university was the private Bond University in Queensland, which scored 84.3%, down only 3% from 87.2%.
The federal education minister, Alan Tudge, said in a statement that the results were “not unexpected” due to the pandemic, but that universities “should be doing better”.
“The results are of course impacted by Covid-19, but we can and should be doing better,” he said.
“I want all universities to focus on their main purpose: educating Australians and giving them the skills and qualifications that will get them into a job. Some of our universities have lost that focus and it’s time to return to core business.
“Universities must ensure that, as classes resume for 2021, they are focused on giving local students the best possible education and learning experience.”
The overall response rate – including non-universities – was 44.1%. Response rates from various universities ranged from 59.8% at the University of Divinity to 32.5% at the University of Western Australia.
In December, a report from Tertiary Education Quality and Standards Agency found that a “very large proportion” of university students do not like online learning and “do not wish to ever experience it again”.