College campus closures had far-reaching impact on students, survey shows

Dramatic decline in number of students who report quality interactions with staff

The closure of college campuses and the switch to remote teaching amid the Covid-19 pandemic had a far-reaching and negative impact on the experience of tens of thousands of college students, according to a major new survey.

The findings are contained in the latest edition of the annual Irish Survey of Student Engagement, which polled almost 50,000 higher education students during February and March of 2021.

The review found there was a dramatic decline in the proportion of students who had quality interactions with staff, while far fewer reported being able to discuss coursework or collaborate with fellow students.

Hospital Report

In addition, there were fewer social opportunities and lower perceived levels of engagement compared with previous years.


For example, more than one-third (37 per cent) of first-year students reported having excellent, or close to excellent, interactions with academic staff in 2021. This was down sharply from the averages recorded prior to the pandemic (64 per cent).

Similarly, a minority of first years (26 per cent) prepared for exams by discussing or working through course material with other students on a regular basis, according to the 2021 review. This was down significantly on the average from surveys in 2018-2020 (45 per cent).

An even smaller minority (12 per cent) of first years believed that their institution emphasised social opportunities very much in 2021, down significantly on previous years.

Postgraduate survey

A second survey directed at more than 3,000 postgraduate research students in February and March 2021 as part of the review found significant differences between the experiences of arts/humanities students and those studying so-called Stem subjects (science, technology, engineering and maths).

Stem postgraduate researchers said they were able to avail of development opportunities that would benefit their careers more readily than the former group during the pandemic.

However, as these results relate to one year only, the authors say caution should be exercised in interpreting the results.

In addition, suggestions from other studies that female postgraduate research students have been more affected than male postgraduate research students by the pandemic were supported. Eighteen per cent of female respondents had considered withdrawing from their programme due to personal or family reasons, compared with 14 per cent of male respondents.

Most postgraduate students reported having regular contact with their supervisors (86 per cent) and having a suitable working space (68 per cent).

Most also managed to attend an academic research conference or felt that their research degree programme was worthwhile.

Opportunities for reform

Megan O'Connor of the Union of Students in Ireland said the overall results show there is an opportunity for institutions to improve and reform teaching and learning practices by retaining elements that perform well and discarding approaches that may have been ineffective.

“We encourage transparent use and implementation of the data gathered by the survey and retaining the aspects of flexibility seen across the sector,” she said.

“We are committed to working collaboratively with all stakeholders across the higher education system to promote and support the enhancement of the student experience.”

Dr Siobhán Nic Fhlannchadha, project manager of, emphasised that everyone has suffered due to the impact of the pandemic and students were no exception.

She said they have also shown “tremendous resilience”, with many respondents showing positivity and strength in their responses, along with recognising the efforts being made by their college to support them in difficult circumstances.

Carl O'Brien

Carl O'Brien

Carl O'Brien is Education Editor of The Irish Times. He was previously chief reporter and social affairs correspondent