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Measuring Students’ Perception of COVID-19 Impact on Higher Education Through the National Student Survey in Romania

Abstract

The article presents the first National Student Survey (NSS-RO) results. The questionnaire was opened to all Romanian students between November 2020 and January 2021 and involved 23,796 respondents from 76 higher education institutions. Initially designed to be a tool to improve the quality of higher education, given the epidemiological context created with the Covid-19 pandemic, it expanded with one section to measure students’ perception of its impact on higher education. This work intends to establish a correlation between student dropout intention during the Covid-19 pandemic and the direct support received from higher education institutions regarding material resources, such as tablets, laptops, or other similar tools. Secondly, it analyses the students’ perception of the transition into emergency remote education. We measured in this sense their opinion on how easily they accessed mainly online educational resources, the information received, and the teachers’ performance during classes. These results provide one of the first steps towards understanding the impact of the Covid-19 pandemic on the Romanian higher education system. The massive interference provoked a giant leap in digitalisation and significantly changed how universities apply Student-Centred Learning (SCL) practices. Also, this study contributes to the area of national student surveys.

Keywords

  • National student survey
  • Romania
  • Higher education
  • Student dropout
  • Online learning

1 Introduction

1.1 ‘Normal Led to This’: COVID-19 Pandemic Impact on Education

Several months after the guidelines towards a ’new normality’ emerged (Tesar 2020) in a world still severely haunted by the Covid-19 pandemic, Ed Yong, a British scientific journalist for The Atlantic, wrote a profound analysis on how the United States failed to contain the propagation of this deadly virus. One of his conclusions was that ’Normal led to this [crisis]. Normal was a world ever more prone to a pandemic but ever less ready for one. To avert another catastrophe, the U.S. needs to grapple with all the ways normal failed us’ (Young 2020). Returning to normal is not an option anymore.

A study of the International Association of Universities (IAU) found that in March 2020, one-third of higher education institutions in countries surveyed could not move teaching online (Maroni et al. 2020). Compared with the last great pandemic that had a significant effect globally (Mackowiak 2021)—the 1918–1920 Influenza pandemic—countries are widely interconnected now. As a result, the Covid-19 spread was instant with significant effects on societies. Public authorities had to offer prompt responses to complex challenges, most of them in the premiere. Higher education systems were not an exception (Bergan et al. 2020).

Although it is too early to draw the curtain on Covid-19 pandemic development at its onset, we have indeed reached a point where we can primarily look at how it impacted our educational systems. The impact was significant, starting from a deterioration of the fundamental values within HEIs or the challenges that arose by the continuously growing gap between different social categories that affect certain students’ access to higher education. (Harkavy et al. 2020). To address these challenges, we must understand what is happening with our educational systems. It is vital to reassess the national contingencies plans for the education sector and quickly update public authorities’ strategies.

Overlooked topics earlier prevailed, as, for instance, depression and anxiety symptoms, such as sleep disturbance, became increasingly frequent among higher education students in this period. The increase varies from a country to another, but Deng et al. (2021) appreciate that approximately a 30% increase in the student population displayed such symptoms. Usually, students with lower socioeconomic status or originating from more underdeveloped regions tend to be somewhat more affected. Also, female students do have a higher frequency of depression and anxiety episodes. Even before the Covid-19 pandemic erupted, the prevalence of depression for students (30.6%) was at a higher rate than the general population (12.9%).

1.2 A Succinct Analysis of How Romanian Higher Education System Addressed the Challenges of the COVID-19 Pandemic

Countries across Europe were affected by a sharp increase of Covid-19 cases in Europe, starting with the first outbreaks in Italy in early February 2020. This fact is crucial for Romania as it has a sizeable diaspora community in this southern European country. Hâncean et al. (2020) have analysed the early transmission of Covid-19 in Romania starting from the first case registered on 25 February 2020. It was a matter of weeks until the Romanian Government suspended the educational process (on 10 March), as the country prepared to emerge into a state of emergency, declared by the President of Romania on 16 March. Deca et al. (2021) recounted how Romanian higher education institutions faced the first wave of the Covid-19 pandemic.

Romanian universities were compelled in the COVID-19 pandemic to shift from a traditional “face-to-face” teaching system to online learning. The needed suspension of the on-site activities became a challenge for decision-makers that had to revise the legislative framework in order to facilitate this transition. The first set of Government decisions regulated how Romanian higher education would move to online delivery. Students could complete online their final exams for Bachelor, Master or Doctoral degrees. Also, online admission activities became fully legal. Those measures were to apply until the end of the academic year 2019/2020, but their effects were prolonged later on.Footnote 1

Romanian public authorities have strictly regulated distance learning, as it was an important source of “diploma mills” in the first two decades after the fall of the Communist regime (Deca et al. 2021). Nevertheless, online education was largely perceived as a backup educational system. There was no arrangement within the Romanian universities for a situation where all educational and administrative activities move online. Challenges arose as higher education institutions had to quickly come up with contingency plans and build institutional capacity to cope with the new reality (Roman and Plopeanu 2021). Depending on the field of study, the universities had to adapt the curriculum. For instance, medical and artistic education programmes were significantly disrupted, as they are based on experiential education. In the first weeks of online education, university leadership endeavoured to set up proper communication systems between teachers and students. In terms of quality assurance, there were significant difficulties to maintain a suitable standard for courses and other educational activities (Schnakovszky et al. 2020).

As the state of emergency ended, plans on how to start the new academic year emerged. The national exams for undergraduate students (8 and 12th grade) held in the summer of 2020 were successful in terms of epidemiological safety, as there were no Covid-19 cases linked to examinations. Also, higher education institutions managed to conduct online admissions for the first time in their history, with some noteworthy exceptions—several medical and arts universities (Deca et al. 2021).

A working group arose to prepare the scenarios for the academic year of 2020/2021.Footnote 2 Public authorities (e.g. Presidential Administration, Ministry of Education and Research, Ministry of Health) and stakeholders (e.g. trade unions, student unions) worked together, and in mid-August, some changes were approved to the National Education Law 1/2011. The Ministry of Education established three scenarios with the Ministry of Health, based on the Covid-19 cumulative incidence, which meant that the education system functioning was largely relying on the administrative capacity for testing and reporting COVID-19 cases. Higher education institutions were given more leeway than schools, as they were allowed to decide, via deliberations of the University Senate, which scenario to adopt. The difference in treatment was grounded on the Constitutional provision for university autonomy. Even in this context, the university has to comply with specific epidemiological safety measures that are subject to the decision of the County Public Health Directorate or Prefecture, based on the incidence rate of the Covid-19 cases.

It is worth mentioning that several HEIs, such as the “Babes-Bolyai” University of Cluj-Napoca or the University of Bucharest, already set such scenarios before a national legal framework was approved (UBB 2020, UniBuc 2021). Nevertheless, most academic activities continued to be held online during the rest of 2020 and 2021. Once again, a notable exception was medical and art universities. For instance, Baczek et al. (2021) show that the lack of interaction with patients was the most significant problem among Polish medical students during the first months of interruption.

An increasingly shared responsibility among Rector, vice-rector, deans and their teams, and the Senate resulted from the growth of institutional autonomy. Academic leadership was under test during those months as values such as trust or adaptability became more valuable (Dumulescu and Mutiu 2021). One of the most challenging tests that universities confronted was to reopen their gates towards students and their staff. As there is now clear that such a reopening can significantly increase the Covid-19 cases in the county or partially the increase in hospitalisation or Intensive Care Unit number of patients (Andersen et al. 2021), HEIs management had very few options.

Such a decision had significant implications also for the local community as the potential risks were assessed. In cities such as Cluj-Napoca, where there is a big student ratio per capita, the losses were immense for the local economy. Some researchers estimate that the city lost 33.4 million euros per month (Chirică and Lazăr 2021) due to courses moving online in pandemic months. It led to the expectance of students’ coming back at least for some categories that directly benefited from students’ presence.

2 Romanian National Student Survey and Its Transition into the COVID-19 Era

The National Sociological Research about Students’ Satisfaction in Romania, known as Chestionarul Naţional Studenţesc or National Student Survey (NSS-RO), was in the final drafting and testing stage when the Covid-19 pandemic erupted (Deaconu et al. 2020). A decision to postpone the survey arose naturally. The research team observed the situation development and started collecting data about the transition to online education. Furthermore, the IT support improved, and preparations started for a new testing process. In June 2020, five webinars took place with students from different student organisations to gather feedback, which was taken into account in the following months.

As it became clear that the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic would affect the higher education system for several years to come, it was also increasingly obvious that it would affect students’ experience and, thus, their perceptions. They began to confront social and economic constraints, one of the most unaddressed issues in this period being mental health. Also, in order to transition to online education, many students had problems with Internet connectivity or the lack of proper IT devices. A fundamental question then arose within the research team: How to look into the impact of the last period on earlier agreed questions from NSS-RO without causing notable variations and still seize the representation of how students perceived the first months of solely online education?

Table 1 Educational process development in the circumstances of the distortion caused by the COVID-19 pandemic’ section from NSS-RO

The agreed solution was to introduce an additional section dedicated to the educational process evolution during the last semester of the 2019/2020 academic year. For the main sections, participants were reminded to reflect on their experience during the semester and then provide answers to the questions comprised in the Covid-19 section of the questionnaire. The additional section had ten questions (Table 1), designed in the same framework as previous ones.Footnote 3 The newly introduced questions maintained similar Likert-type scale responses as in previously developed sections.Footnote 4

3 Methodology

3.1 Research Questions

Our goal was to understand how students perceived the transition into online education as the Covid-19 pandemic emerged. For this reason, we settled on two main topics. Firstly, we want to learn if we can associate students’ dropout intention with the direct support received from the HEI during the pandemic crisis. Secondly, we wanted to understand how universities have fully switched to remote education in a broader view. For those matters, we used both qualitative and quantitative methods to answer the following research questions:

  1. 1.

    What was the students’ perception of the HEI transition into emergency remote teaching generated by the Covid-19 pandemic?

    1. a.

      Did the universities manage to prepare proper Information and Communication Technologies (ICT)Footnote 5 for the transfer into online education?

    2. b.

      Were teachers able to tailor academic activities considering students’ opinions and feedback?

  2. 2.

    What is the relationship between students’ dropout intention and the direct support received from their higher education institution during the first months of the Covid-19 pandemic?

We understand emergency remote teaching as a ‘temporary shift of instructional delivery to an alternate delivery mode due to crisis circumstances’. It substitutes the ‘traditional’ on-site and blended courses. Also, it usually takes place online. Nevertheless, there are several differences between ‘online learning’ and ‘emergency remote teaching’ as the latter can also be introduced through other methods (Hodges et al. 2020). Mainly, all Romanian universities opted for the transition into online education (Deca et al. 2021).

The first part of NSS-RO was designed to shed light on student concerns regarding the transition to online education. Those answers will be pivotal to respond to the first research question. Also, by the time the National Student Survey was launched, several scientific papers were already published covering this issue. Furthermore, different state representatives from various countries commented on future development within national higher education systems. As a crisis can represent an opportunity to consider some bold measures, the European Commission launched in September 2020 a communication on achieving the European Education Area by 2025. Several policy objectives were underlined, including inclusion and gender equality or green and digital transition (EC 2020). Part of the questionnaire analysis reflects the status quo in Romania concerning those subjects.

A review of the scientific literature concerning the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic in higher education was also an important research instrument that we used. A significant number of papers used surveys to acquire data about both students and academics concerning this issue. We investigated both Romanian study cases, as well as information from other countries.

3.2 Data Collection

UEFISCDI and the Ministry of Education implemented NSS-RO between 24 November 2020 and 18 January 2021. There were two main routes to complete the survey. Firstly, all students with a registered email in the National Student Enrolment Registry (RMU) received an online invitation in their inbox. Secondly, the participants could opt to take the survey starting from the NSS-RO website. If their Personal Identity Code (CNP) was found in RMU, they were automatically validated and could take the survey. In the opposite situation, the participants had to introduce their data and afterwards, they received an email invitation to take the survey.

The initial number of respondents stopped at 24,280. 12,982 (53.46%) completed the survey through the NSS-RO website,Footnote 6 while the rest of 11,487 (46.53%) through the automatic invitation received on their email. Following the period of NSS-RO completion ended, the research team finalised the second round of RMU validation for students that were not identified through this mechanism in the first phase (Fig. 1). After experts finalised the database cleaning process, 23,796 students from 76 higher education institutions who participated in the survey were validated. 97.27% of them were found through the National Student Enrolment Registry (RMU).

Almost two-thirds of the respondents were women (64.64%). 26.61% of Bachelor degree respondents were in the first year of study, 28.60% were in the second, and 25.61% in the third. The vast majority of the respondents were conducting full-time studies (94.75%), as shown in Table 2.

Fig. 1
figure 1

A concise form of the logical scheme for NSS-RO

Table 2 Descriptive statistics about NSS-RO respondents

We applied then post-stratification weights in terms of gender and study cycle, as well as the number of respondents from a university, in order to minimise the sampling error or the possible non-response inclination. A total number of 207 responses emerged from the total number of respondents (23,796). We selected eight important indicators concerning some of the most notable social and educational characteristics of NSS-RO respondents, such as financial support status, form of study (frequency), gender, scholarship status, special social status, student housing status, study cycle or year of study as presented below (Table 3).

Table 3 Critical data indicators collected through national student enrolment registry and national student survey—RO from the respondents

3.3 Methods of Analysis

As we stated earlier, to answer the research questions, we used both quantitative and qualitative methods. After cleaning the data and applying post-stratification weights, we designated a value for each option from the 5-point rating scale to compare the responses: ‘definitely disagree’—1, ‘mostly disagree’—2, ‘neither agree nor disagree’—3, ‘mostly agree’—4, ‘definitely agree’—5. We opted to calculate the means as there is a statistical measure of the medium value of the distribution of the results. Also, it considers all the values and is a robust instrument to certificate students’ selections at a comprehensive overview. The ‘not applicable’ option was not taken into consideration when calculating means.Footnote 7 We took into consideration all valid answers for each question. After this, the answers for each question were analysed starting from the selected indicators in Table 3. For instance, the link between the study cycle and participants’ answers for each question is reflected in Table 4.

Table 4 Mean results of NSS-RO thematic section dedicated to the impact of COVID-19 pandemic on higher education in Romania (from 1 to 5 scale. Non-responses were excluded)

Also, the relationship between the scholarship status and the mean result of a question is explained in Table 5.

Table 5 Mean results of NSS-RO thematic section dedicated to the impact of COVID-19 pandemic on higher education in Romania, considering the study cycle and the form of scholarship (from 1 to 5 scale. Non-responses were excluded)

All indicators were analysed for all study cycles, if not mentioned otherwise, with a notable exception. When comparing results to study year, we considered only Bachelor degree respondents as there is a significant difference between a first-year undergraduate and a MA or Ph.D. first-year student. 9.50% of total answers are from this category of students, with 6.40% from MA and 0.10% from Ph.D. The results can be seen in Table 6 and Appendix.

Table 6 Mean results of NSS-RO thematic section dedicated to the impact of COVID-19 pandemic on higher education in Romania, considering the study year only for Bachelor degree participants (from 1 to 5 scale. Non-responses were excluded)

4 Romanian Higher Education Transition into Online Education During the COVID-19 Pandemic

4.1 Did Universities Manage to Tackle Student Dropouts?

4.1.1 Dropout Intention (Q.1)

As emergency remote teaching started right after the Covid-19 pandemic began, the difficulties of applying a distance learning system model became general. Some studies indicate that this type of educational model can be associated with a higher rate of dropout and a lower learning motivation or engagement coming from the student (Lee et al. 2021, Sweet, 1986, Kim et al. 2017). Dropout intention among NSS-RO was low as a significant number of participants disagreed or strongly disagreed that they had such plans. Q.1. mean answer was 2.03 out of 5, as the dropout intention among students was more significant at BA rather than MA or Ph.D. Nevertheless, many respondents expressed little concern in this direction.

As few studies analyse dropout intention in Romanian universities, it is essential to underline that the intention is the cumulative result of several factors, including variables such as social status (Mălăescu et al. 2018). BA respondents from sixth and fifth year strongly disagreed that they intend to abandon higher education studies, unlike those from the first and second year, who indicated a slightly higher option for a potential option to drop out. Usually, such students study Medicine and Architecture – study programs usually populated with students of higher socioeconomic statuses. MA students receiving social-based criteria scholarships, BA students that receive Romanian Government support were those who indicated a higher rate of potential dropout, while Ph.D. students with or without financial support declared almost no intention to give up on their studies.

Romanian Government scholarship (BSR) students such as MA social scholarship receivers are likely to have had a job as their financial situation makes them eligible for this type of support or the scholarship is low (85 euros per month for BSR). Their perception of dropout intention could be linked to online transition (and return to hometown, if different) or job loss. The Romanian Government scholarship earners are international students, and they confronted a problematic situation as the borders were closed, and Romania endured a harsh lockdown.

We can conclude that dropout intention among NSS-RO participants decreases in a superior study cycle or study year. Also, students that do not receive a scholarship or have social-based criteria aid are more exposed to abandon their studies.

4.1.2 Challenges in Educational Accessibility Due to Impoverishment (Q.2)

It is now well known that challenges like poor and seldom access to Internet connection lead to vitiated educational experience after the break out of the Covid-19 pandemic (Hasan and Bao 2020). Nevertheless, NSS-RO participants from all study cycles expressed rather that they had not confronted difficulties in the educational process due to impoverishment (2.36 out of 5). From this point of view, lack of electronic devices suitable for learning or poor Internet connection was among the obstacles faced by many of the respondents. Once again, BA students were rather affected by this situation compared to MA or Ph.D.

The most affected BA students were in the first and second year, while students from the fifth and sixth year confronted fewer challenges from this point of view. BA respondents with multiple criteria (2.59 out of 5) or social-based scholarships (2.54 out of 5) were among the most affected from the transition into online education. MA students with academic-based merit support (2.45) were also somewhat affected compared to other categories.

Part of the responsibility also resides in the failure of the governmental policy of the ‘EURO 200’ program. It was developed in 2004 to help students from primary, secondary and tertiary education to acquire a new personal computer. Between 2004 and 2019, the program’s number of higher education students dropped from 4,496 to 28, with only three beneficiaries in 2018. ‘EURO 200’ program was not updated to the necessities of nowadays as it also implies a high amount of bureaucracy (ANOSR 2020).

The percentage of students in all three study cycles analysed who agree or strongly agree that they encountered obstacles to further continuing their higher education studies (Q.2) is larger than the one that asseses the dropout intention (Q.1). For this matter, additional barriers produced by the transition into online education are a consistent part of the students’ intention to drop out, but not a definitory one. Still, the results can indicate which student categories should receive prior support to stop their possible intention dropout.

4.1.3 Support Received from HEIs (Q.3)

NSS-RO respondents largely disagreed that their higher education institution offered them support to participate in online teaching activities. The mean answer for all study cycles was 1.59 out of 5, whereas students from BA were much more critical than MA or Ph.D. BA respondents were more critical to HEIs, but as one out of two BA respondents was in the first or second year of study, we acknowledge that the HEI’s lack of support relates to the answers from the previous two questions (Fig. 2).

Fig. 2
figure 2

Mean answer for the first three questions in NSS-RO, only BA respondents, compared with study year. Null values and ‘No answer’ options were excluded

As shown in the figure above, especially for the first years in the Bachelor degree, the mean between university dropout intention, difficulties in attaining courses due to impoverishment and support received from the HEI is proportional. The lower dropout rate from the fourth, fifth and sixth year can be explained through financial efforts and academic labour maintained for a more extended period. Also, only a limited number of study programmes, such as medical ones, adapted on more than three years for Bachelor degree.

Also, it is worth mentioning that for BA students receiving academic-based criteria or multiple criteria scholarship, the perception about the support received from the university and the intention to drop out tend to correspond, as they are almost equal. This indicates that an important part of the students that academically perform and intend to abandon studies rely on the support received from the university (Fig. 3).

Fig. 3
figure 3

Mean answer for the first three questions in NSS-RO, only BA respondents, compared with scholarship status. Null values and ‘No answer’ options were excluded

Other categories hindered by the absence of support measures from the university are BA students without a scholarship, MA international students benefiting from the Romanian Government support, and MA students who receive a social-based criteria scholarship. The latter category has the smallest mean from all student categories survey (1.4 out of 5), as they were confronting significant issues to attain higher education.

4.2 Was There a Proper Transition Towards an Emergency Remote Teaching Process?

4.2.1 Online Transition of the Educational Process (Q.5)

Several studies showed that students reclaimed the impact of the transition to online education. As their study efficacy dropped, some developed a negative attitude towards it (Aguilera-Hermida 2020). Nevertheless, NSS-RO participants from all study cycles agree that HEIs efforts to carry out the educational process in an online environment were relatively successful, with a mean answer of 3.26 out of 5.

Once again, students from BA were less satisfied than their colleagues from MA and Ph.D. For instance, Ph.D. students mean answer was 5 out of 5. BA participants from the fifth and the sixth year were also less satisfied than their colleagues from the first study years. Students receiving either academic or social-based scholarships were the most disappointed about the HEI approach towards online transition. We can explain this through the case that students who are more invested in educational processes are more demanding in terms of the support offered by HEIs.

Students from MA without a scholarship and those with academic or multiple criteria scholarships were among the most satisfied students questioned about the transition into online. On the other hand, the similar categories from BA were much less keen on this process. From this point of view, the answer could be highly influenced by the social context, as a larger percentage of MA students has a job or established a family. This situation is highly possible when speaking of Ph.D. students, as all 277 respondents gave the same positive answer.

4.2.2 Access to Necessary Educational Resources (Q.6)

NSS-RO respondents mostly agreed that they benefited from online educational resources necessary for teaching, as it was the most considerable mean value among the analysed questions (4.14 out of 5). This time though, BA students were similarly satisfied as their colleagues from MA, but more than Ph.D. students, as it unveils that the institutional focus was on the first study years.

Bachelor degree students from the first years were happier with the resources received as students from the fifth or sixth year usually have technical or practical stages that could not be replaced. Multiple criteria scholarship receivers were the most satisfied NSS-RO respondents as international students receiving support from the Romanian Government were less fulfilled.

Even though it is clear now that students’ digital education level increased as they turned entirely online (Aguilera-Hermida 2020), some studies reflect that students generally understand online platforms such as Facebook, Messenger or WhatsApp as platforms that are suitable for education (Roman and Plopeanu 2021). In this respect, there is an essential chance that some respondents could not comprehend what a dedicated educational resource means and what type of platforms are suitable for higher education activities.

4.2.3 Communication with HEIs (Q.7)

Hasan and Bao (2020) show that students perceive a psychological extenuation because of ineffective e-Learning systems and fear of losing their academic year. Social distancing from teachers and other colleagues contributes to the prolongation of this situation. Constant communication between universities and students represents one of the solutions to contend a considerable number of doubts and improve their mental health situation.

NSS-RO respondents agreed that universities kept constant information on the development of the educational process and possible further changes as the average answer was 3.6 out of 5. Ph.D. students mostly welcomed how HEIs maintain contact in comparison with MA or BA students (Fig. 4).

Fig. 4
figure 4

Mean answer for Q.5, Q.6 and Q.7 in NSS-RO, only BA respondents, compared with study year. Null values and ‘No answer’ options were excluded

Fig. 5
figure 5

Mean answer for Q.5, Q.6 and Q.7 in NSS-RO, only BA respondents, compared with scholarship status. Null values and ‘No answer’ options were excluded

Students from the first two years were somewhat happy with the amount of information received, as their colleagues from superior years faced either their final exams either experimental stages that were postponed or cancelled. As the figure above shows, there is a directly proportional link between NSS-RO respondents’ perception of online transition, access to resources and how universities communicated with them after the Covid-19 pandemic emerged.

Also, international students receiving the Romanian Government scholarship and those with multiple criteria scholarships tend to offer the same mean answer for their perception of HEI online transition and how it maintained the communicational flux (Fig. 5).

Above all, answers from Q.5, Q.6 and Q.7 demonstrate that NSS-RO respondents perceive positively the way HEI facilitated students’ access to different educational or dedicated online platforms as part of their response to emergency remote teaching situations that emerged at the beginning of March 2020. The shift could not have been done in the absence of ICT infrastructure. Nonetheless, the answers do not recollect if it was a complex process for the universities or applying proper and innovative technologies to foster online learning. Starting from the data collected through NSS-RO, we can recount that most higher education institutions in Romania managed to have a proper transfer into online education.

4.3 How Important Were the Teachers?

4.3.1 Teachers’ Involvement in Courses, Seminars and Laboratories (Q.8)

Several studies show students had a dull experience while staying home, allocating a notable amount of time for watching TV or PC gaming while using the mobile phone to connect to online courses (Pan 2020). Therefore, teachers’ role became more important to keep students connected. Also, some of the students were concerned about their academic path (Pigaiani et al. 2020). Teachers also played a significant role in counselling, giving support to students in such cases.

NSS-RO respondents neither agree nor disagree that teachers actively determined them to participate in courses, seminars, and laboratories. The results underline how the added value of the teacher is not significant compared to the course contents. The mean answer was 3.08 out of 5. BA students were slightly more disappointed than MA or Ph.D. students. BA students from the two last study years were more unsatisfied with the teachers’ involvement, keeping a pace maintained from previous questions. Also, MA students with multiple criteria or no scholarship (4.24 out of 5) were among the most enthusiastic about the teachers’ involvement. Ph.D. students offered a mean of 5.

4.3.2 Agreement on Evaluation Criteria (Q.9) and Considering Students’ Options in Organising Academic Activities (Q.10)

NSS-RO participants instead agreed that professors considered students’ opinions on the evaluation criteria and accurate, explicit, and transparently published. The mean answer was 3.34 out of 5, with BA students being the most unsatisfied category on this subject. Students from the fifth and sixth years were largely unsatisfied in comparison with their colleagues and BA students without scholarship or either with academic or social-based criteria scholarship.

Respondents slightly disagreed that universities took into attention their opinion when scheduling academic activities (2.67 out of 5). BA students expressed their dissatisfaction more than their colleagues from MA or Ph.D. In terms of respondents’ perception of teachers engagement, participants were relatively neutral as, once again, BA students had a critical view on the issue rather than MA or Ph.D. students (Fig. 6).

Fig. 6
figure 6

Mean answer for Q.8, Q.9 and Q.10 in NSS-RO, only BA respondents, compared with study year. Null values and ‘No answer’ options were excluded

The mean answers for the last three NSS-RO questions are also directly proportional to the BA study year. It is noteworthy that there is a clear difference between BA and MA or Ph.D. students perception of how teachers were able to organise the academic activities considering students’ opinions and feedback. The latter categories embrace a more adaptative schedule and maybe, if it is the case, a modular approach, for instance, to gain flexibility. From this point of view, we cannot express a firm point on how teachers managed to take into account student opinions and feedback.

5 Conclusions

With 23,706 respondents from 76 higher education institutions and 97.27% students identified in National Student Enrolment Registry, the National Student Survey in Romania represents one of the most extensive student surveys applied after the Covid-19 pandemic erupted. A dedicated section to this subject collected relevant data about students’ perception of how higher education transformed starting with March 2020.

Even though one-third of higher education institutions worldwide could not transfer their educational process online when the Covid-19 pandemic emerged, the Romanian Higher Education System was among those that represent a positive case.

Initially, the framework for the online transition of universities was documented in the national legal framework. Afterwards, the legislation moved the decision regarding how to conduct academic activities to the HEIs, cooperating with the County Public Health Directorate (DSP – in Romanian) and the local Prefecture. This measure was an essential step in consolidating institutional autonomy. We can conclude that:

  • This measure was an essential step in consolidating institutional autonomy;

  • The legislator paradigm concerning remote educational activities shifted from a discouraging perspective (after the ‘diploma mills’ cases) to a supportive one.

In terms of the institutional autonomy solidification, we can add that:

  • The decision-making process involved the University Senate (legislative branch) rather than the management section (Rectors, Vice-rectors, Deans), as the legislator considered that public responsibility of the university has to be assumed through the most important forum of the HEI;

  • It was also a test of public responsibility and engagement with the local community, as the institution cares responsibility for the health of natives, among university staff, students and their families;

  • The HEIs are partially responsible for how students that took primarily online courses (more than a year at this moment) will be perceived after they graduate in the Romanian society and how they will emerge in the labour market.

Nonetheless, our study revealed that this shift to institutional autonomy was not entirely successful in several fundamental actions. Tackling student dropout intention is accentuated by the Covid-19 pandemic as students’ reconsidered their opinion on how their educational process should proceed.

Firstly, it is essential to highlight that there are no significant variations among different student categories mean answers when speaking about gender, student housing status, study frequency or financial support status.

Romanian higher education system had a transition towards an emergency remote teaching process mainly in the online environment. The abrupt transfer caused many difficulties for a large number of students and professors, as well as university staff. The transition to online education was not a smooth one in most cases. The most important reason is that HEIs perceived online educational platforms mainly as a backup solution rather than one applied daily. Also, there were no contingency plans for such situations.

One of our main research questions addressed the HEIs preparation on suitable ICT for the online education transfer. NSS-RO results show that students have a favourable opinion on this subject largely. Some of the explanations could be:

  • Universities acquired, developed or expanded the use of ICT in the online learning process.

  • Both MA and Ph.D. students possibly received a more significant amount of flexibility in organising their schedule, as the probability of having personal and professional constraints is more prominent than in BA students cases.

  • Students that had difficulties sustaining themselves in university centres could take a break and return to their hometown. Still, there was a particular low percentage in the case of Romanian Government scholarship (BSR) students or academic-based criteria scholarship receivers.

  • The respondents perceive social media platforms such as Facebook, Facebook Messenger or WhatsApp as suitable platforms for higher education activities.

  • Students from superior study years expressed their dissatisfaction mainly on how academic activities developed.

  • As there were several months of intense uncertainty and fluid legislation, the final exams calendar changed frequently or it was announced late. This cannot be taken into account as part of the HEIs’ responsibility. Also, for example, the medical students from the last study years could not realise their practical training.

Online resources’ accessibility, variety, and quality have increased, as both NSS-RO respondents and many studies revealed.

The overall intention of respondents to drop out from their university is relatively lower, but students from disadvantaged social and economic backgrounds have revealed this intention more often. We can ascertain that:

  • Dedicated students tend to have more demands from an HEI in terms of support offered.

  • Students that academically perform and intend to abandon studies rely upon the support received from the university.

  • As the Romanian Government failed to support the most vulnerable student categories throughout programs such as ‘EURO 200’ to purchase proper online learning devices, the acquisition passed on the HEIs. The central authorities focused on supporting primary and secondary school students.

  • As the rate of negative answers decreases proportionally with the study year, we can assume that universities have targeted their efforts to prevent students’ dropout from the first study years, those who are statistically the most vulnerable.

  • The Romanian Government scholarship beneficiaries and social-based criteria scholarship earners are among the most unsatisfied students regarding the support received from their HEI.

  • As one of the most vulnerable categories starting from their social background, it should have been essential to receive further help.

  • The dropout intention is strongly related to the support received from the HEI in the case of academic and multiple based scholarship earners.

  • Nevertheless, the lack of support from HEIs to acquire proper electronic devices was a crucial but not determining factor in the dropout intention.

Although the dropout intention is relatively low among NSS-RO respondents, there is a strong perception that both the Romanian Government and the higher education institutions failed to support different student categories that needed proper equipment to access online education.

Teachers’ importance was revealed more than usual in this period as they were the virtual connection between students and universities. The quality of the teachers is crucial for developing and conducting a Student-Centred Learning educational process. The study concludes that:

  • There is a robust linear relationship between the teachers’ degree of involvement during online classes and how the latter perceived the transition in online education.

  • Only one-third of Bachelor degree students expressed their satisfaction toward teachers’ involvement, which means HEIs must improve their teachers’ skills and digital competencies.

  • Part of the unsatisfactory student feedback can be linked to the misuse of digital platforms.

  • Respondents also tend to correlate teachers involved with the evaluation criteria and how universities considered students opinions when scheduling academic activities as the academic staff was the only interface between them and the university for a significant degree of students.

  • Overall, NSS-RO respondents’ perception emphasises how the added value of the professor is not essential when compared to the content of the class. Despite both teachers and HEIs efforts, NSS-RO respondents tend rather to disagree that academic activities were tailored considering their opinion and feedback.

In the authors’ view, the Covid-19 section of the Romanian National Student Survey provides essential information about the students’ perception of some critical issues. The dropout intention, online transition or integration of students’ opinions into academic activities are vital points to understand changes in Romanian higher education. These results will be correlated with other sections of NSS-RO in further studies in order to provide a broader view.

Notes

  1. 1.

    By Emergency Ordinance No. 58 of 23 April 2020 on taking measures for the proper functioning of the education system, the measures were foreseen until the end of the academic year 2019/2020 (RO: https://www.edu.ro/sites/default/files/fisiere%20articole/OUG%2058%20-%202020.pdf). By Emergency Ordinance No. 141 of 19 August 2020, on the establishment of measures for the proper functioning of the education system and the modification and completion of the National Law of Education No 1/2011, the measures were extended until the end of the academic year 2020/2021 (RO: https://edu.ro/sites/default/files/_fi%C8%99iere/Legislatie/2020/oug%20141-2020.pdf).

  2. 2.

    Order No. 4742/1334/2020, approving the setting-up of the inter-ministerial working group to establish the rules /measures for the beginning of the school year /the academic year 2020–2021(RO: https://www.edu.ro/sites/default/files/_fi%C8%99iere/Legislatie/2020/OMEC-OMS%204742.pdf).

  3. 3.

    The answers to question no. 4 could not be stored due to some technical problems.

  4. 4.

    NSS-RO used a five-grade scale (definitely agree, mostly agree, neither agree nor disagree, mostly disagree and definitely disagree) and the not applicable option.

  5. 5.

    A broad definition of ICT is available from UNESCO Institute for Statistics: “Diverse set of technological tools and resources used to transmit, store, create, share or exchange information. These technological tools and resources include computers, the Internet (websites, blogs and emails), live broadcasting technologies (radio, television and webcasting), recorded broadcasting technologies (podcasting, audio and video players and storage devices) and telephony (fixed or mobile, satellite, visio/video-conferencing, etc.)”, http://uis.unesco.org/en/glossary-term/information-and-communication-technologies-ict.

  6. 6.

    www.chestionar-studenti.ro.

  7. 7.

    We took into consideration students from the first year (BA, MA or Ph.D.) that did not check ‘not applicable’ as we assumed that they were enrolled in a higher education study programme in the academic year 2019/2020 after we highlighted that Covid-19 section of NSS-RO is designed for the second part of that year.

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Appendix

Appendix

  study_cycle
Bachelor degree (%) Master degree (%) Ph.D. (%)
university_dropout No answer/Not my case 10.17 9.30 7.99
  Strongly disagree 46.89 54.19 58.76
  Disagree 11.56 11.66 12.23
  Undecided 17.29 14.83 9.84
  Agree 8.92 6.50 7.26
  Strongly agree 5.17 3.52 3.91
impoverished_students No answer/Not my case 8.82 7.79 9.43
  Strongly disagree 36.03 43.97 46.17
  Disagree 16.95 16.87 17.27
  Undecided 14.62 12.18 11.37
  Agree 15.11 12.15 9.75
  Strongly agree 8.47 7.03 6.01
HEI_support No answer/Not my case 11.45 10.09 8.73
  Strongly disagree 62.74 60.90 48.93
  Disagree 10.45 10.66 12.18
  Undecided 8.72 10.38 14.62
  Agree 3.10 3.81 7.79
  Strongly agree 3.55 4.16 7.75
online_transition No answer/Not my case 8.05 7.23 9.74
  Strongly disagree 10.64 6.27 7.88
  Disagree 14.96 10.02 8.79
  Undecided 25.20 22.92 19.91
  Agree 24.82 28.04 25.39
  Strongly agree 16.33 25.52 28.28
online_resources No answer/Not my case 8.09 7.33 8.38
  Strongly disagree 2.16 1.87 5.20
  Disagree 4.01 3.04 5.73
  Undecided 11.30 9.91 17.63
  Agree 35.86 34.98 27.25
  Strongly agree 38.58 42.87 35.80
HEI_information No answer/Not my case 8.09 7.31 7.38
  Strongly disagree 6.80 4.04 7.92
  Disagree 11.08 8.48 6.01
  Undecided 19.80 16.78 15.43
  Agree 30.41 32.90 30.12
  Strongly agree 23.83 30.48 33.13
involved_teachers No answer/Not my case 8.12 7.27 9.98
  Strongly disagree 13.07 9.23 8.70
  Disagree 17.74 12.72 9.20
  Undecided 26.29 22.37 19.54
  Agree 21.02 25.30 25.51
  Strongly agree 13.76 23.12 27.08
evaluation_agreement No answer/Not my case 8.19 7.43 11.37
  Strongly disagree 10.51 5.24 7.02
  Disagree 13.07 8.66 7.57
  Undecided 22.83 19.64 15.07
  Agree 27.50 31.94 30.64
  Strongly agree 17.90 27.08 28.33
students_opinion No answer/Not my case 8.24 7.41 9.48
  Strongly disagree 26.71 16.01 13.87
  Disagree 18.00 15.66 7.24
  Undecided 20.26 20.96 21.58
  Agree 15.72 20.39 23.63
  Strongly agree 11.08 19.57 24.20

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Deaconu, SM., Olah, R. (2022). Measuring Students’ Perception of COVID-19 Impact on Higher Education Through the National Student Survey in Romania. In: Curaj, A., Salmi, J., Hâj, C.M. (eds) Higher Education in Romania: Overcoming Challenges and Embracing Opportunities. Springer, Cham. https://doi.org/10.1007/978-3-030-94496-4_8

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