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Fears for dropout rates as Covid blocks access to social activities


Working-class students more at risk of missing out on clubs and internships, Sutton Trust says

Students could be at higher risk of dropping out of university as the pandemic has made it harder for them to take part in extracurricular activities, research has indicated.

According to two reports published on 25 February by the Sutton Trust, a social mobility charity, students have been engaging less in clubs and societies at universities during the pandemic—with students from low-income backgrounds most affected.

The Sutton Trust said that there was a “real concern that dropout rates may increase” given the impact the pandemic was having on students’ experiences. Around 10 per cent of students from low-income backgrounds said it was unlikely that they would finish the academic year, compared with 6 per cent of students from wealthier backgrounds.

In autumn 2019, 54 per cent of undergraduate students polled by the research firm YouthSight had taken part in extracurricular activities at university. That fell to 36 per cent in autumn 2020 and 30 per cent in spring 2021, while 47 per cent said they had not taken part in any “wider enrichment activities” outside their courses at all in 2021.

According to the research, students who live at home are significantly less likely to take part in social activities at their university. In January 2020, 34 per cent of undergraduate students lived at home; by February 2021, this had risen to 58 per cent. Among students from low-income backgrounds, the figure was 64 per cent—meaning these students are less likely to take part in university life.

Last term, 44 per cent of students from middle-class backgrounds took part in university societies, compared with 33 per cent of students from working-class families.

The largest barrier to participation in extracurricular activities was the lack of social interaction, at 29 per cent, and 24 per cent said they had “Zoom fatigue” after staring at screens during their classes.

Most students (87 per cent) said the Covid-19 pandemic had had a negative impact on their development, with non-academic skills such as confidence and verbal communication more likely to have been affected than academic skills.

Shaping students’ futures

In a second report published on 25 February, the Sutton Trust found that although taking part in student societies could be “important for developing students’ employability and life skills”, affordability and feelings of being unwelcome were barriers for students from low-income backgrounds.

While it was seen as “vital” in the workplace for students to develop skills outside academic work, many students from working-class backgrounds had trouble finding work experience opportunities or funding them.

In the report, the trust recommended that universities should offer bursaries for students to fund work experience and offer more employability skills throughout students’ courses.

The research was published as the trust announced a £4.8 million fund to boost access to internships and extracurricular activities for students from low-income backgrounds, run with the financial services firm JPMorgan Chase.

The fund will run for 10 years and students who have previously been involved with the Sutton Trust will be eligible for bursaries of up to £5,000. The money could be used to fund an internship, experiences abroad or participation in clubs and societies at university.

Sutton Trust founder Peter Lampl 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.”