What does a student bubble look like? Understanding students' lived experience in a public health emergency Campbell B Macgregor 1,2, *, Alison ...

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What does a student bubble look like? Understanding students’ lived
experience in a public health emergency

Campbell B Macgregor 1,2, *, Alison Stewart1, Karen Harvey1, Pavitra
Dhamija1, and Mary Cooper1.

1 Health department, Faculty of Health, Education and Environment. Toi Ohomai Institute of
Technology, NZ
2 Sport and Exercise Science, School of Health and Human Sciences, Southern Cross
University, QLD, Australia.
* Corresponding author, Campbell.macgregor@toiohomai.ac.nz
     With New Zealand’s first case of COVID-19 on 26 February 2020, our
     government and organisations were forced to respond rapidly. Everyone in the
     country, including more than 390,000 tertiary students, had to apply the public
     health directives to their own home environments and cope as best they could
     with the unprecedented limitations to contact, movement and daily activities. A
     growing number of studies are beginning to supply a picture of what this meant
     for households and what their ‘bubbles’ looked like. What has not so far been
     investigated is what a student bubble looked like - that is, where students share
     accommodation with other students, and not family members or
     friends/flatmates who are not studying themselves. The study described in this
     paper includes responses from 2125 students across New Zealand via an online
     survey. When compared to household bubbles in general, student bubbles were
     found to have more members but fewer essential workers. There were also
     variations between domestic and international student bubbles, according to age
     and ethnicity. It is hoped that understanding the characteristics of student
     bubbles will assist New Zealand institutes to finetune responses to any return to
     Alert Levels 3 or 4, should this be necessary. The study also identifies where
     further research into students’ experiences and responses is needed.


COVID-19; student bubble; student households; Alert Level 3; Alert Level 4; lockdown


With the emergence of COVID-19 as a global pandemic, nations responded to the growing
number of cases and the imminent threat of escalating disease through a series of containment
strategies. Under the Health Act (1956) the New Zealand Government imposed a state of
emergency (New Zealand Government, 1956), adopting a four level alert system with the
highest Alert Level 4, requiring that the public self-isolate (for a period of one month) and
confine themselves to a household (New Zealand Government, 2020). The term ‘bubble’

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evolved to define these self-isolating sub-groups within communities; a bubble consisted of
members living within a household or place of residence (Kearns et al., 2021). Movement of
residents beyond their bubble was restricted to dealing with emergency situations, maintaining
essential needs and to essential workers fulfilling employment commitments (New Zealand
Government, 2020). In New Zealand essential service workers included a range of frontline
health care staff (Ministry of Health, 2020), and employees of educational institutions and
supermarkets (New Zealand Government, 2020), with 45% of bubbles containing an essential
worker (Kearns et al., 2021).

In response to the Alert Level 4 lockdown, tertiary education services underwent a sudden
transition from on-campus to online delivery, to maintain programme delivery for enrolled
students. The term ‘student bubble’ arose during the lockdown period to refer to the many
single places of residence within which students were living with fellow students. While the
exact number of students living in such households is unknown, New Zealand census data
indicates that in 2018, approximately 500,000 people aged 15 -24 years were part of a single
household, and a similar number were living in rental accommodation (Stats NZ, 2020).
Approximately 390,000 domestic and international students were enrolled with a tertiary
education provider in 2019 (Education Counts, 2021), with many of these tertiary students
living in student-only households. In 2020, for periods of time, these households became
‘student bubbles’ when lockdowns were imposed. Further, in a student bubble there would
have been essential workers participating in part-time or casual employment, particularly in the
aged care and supermarket sectors in New Zealand, while trying to manage their online study

The impact of isolation on students

Research is just now beginning to emerge about how being forced to live in a bubble has
impacted different populations (d’Orville, 2020); the present study is one example. While there
is yet relatively scant literature about the tertiary student experience – in this country and
overseas – it is fair to assume that the self-isolation of a student bubble had an impact on student
health and wellbeing, as well as on students’ academic and career aspirations. For example,
Bek (2017) found that loneliness plays a significant role in international students’ decreasing
course participation. For this group, participation in the on-campus environment creates a sense
of belonging and social wellbeing, that acts as a buffer against loneliness. Investigating the
demographic characteristics of the student bubble is therefore important to help understand the
effects self-isolation may have on our students in Aotearoa, to better support students in the
event of future lockdowns.

Therefore, the experience of being in a student bubble may have significantly affected student
engagement and achievement, during their time of living and studying in isolation. Online
learning involves a degree of flexibility; successfully navigating this mode of education
delivery requires a higher level of self-regulation than face-to-face delivery and may be
challenging for the new online learner (Meyer, 2014). The reduced social interaction of the
online environment, from which the physical interaction of the classroom is missing, is shown
to reduce student engagement as compared to face-to-face delivery (Fisher, 2010). Student
attitude and commitment to study play a role in overall academic success (Suliman &
McInerney, 2006), while attendance may predict the level of achievement (Moore, 2006) and

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engagement can enhance student performance and career aspirations (Bek, 2017).
Consequently, it is likely that living in isolation in a student bubble during the COVID-19
restrictions accentuated feelings of loneliness among students and challenged their academic
engagement, affecting their perceptions of possible future achievement.

Most student bubbles maintained the domestic arrangements in place at the start of the Alert
Level 4 lockdown and were made up of people and resources in the existing household. During
the New Zealand-wide two-day lockdown preparation period before the lockdown commenced,
vocational educational institutes commenced a check to determine the availability of reliable
internet access and devices for each student bubble and as per the Government’s technology
access fund (Tertiary Education Commission, 2020) loan laptops and Wi-Fi were made
available as quickly as possible to students who needed them. This enabled them to continue
their learning online during the lockdown period, when campus-based classes could not take

What did the new ‘normal’ look like for students during the COVID-19 lockdown period? How
can education providers prepare to reduce the impact of future events that are influenced by
factors outside of everyday life? d’Orville (2020) advocated that institutes should not try to
replicate pre-COVID systems when pre-COVID-19 (face-to-face) teaching and learning
conditions resume, but rather, education providers should build improved systems that allow
accelerated learning for all students. To enable this, d’Orville (2020) proposes that students
need to be prepared for study and work, if necessary at the same time, regardless of their
demographic differences, allowing them to gain the full benefit of their course of study
regardless of any pandemic.

New Zealand bubble characteristics

A cross-sectional study undertaken by Kearns et al. (2021) examined the characteristics of New
Zealand household bubbles over a six-day period during the COVID-19 Alert Level 4
lockdown. Using convenience sampling, data was collected via Facebook, the Medical
Research Council’s webpage and by email. The study found that around 80% of household
lockdown bubbles included three to four people. Approximately 70% of lockdown bubbles
surveyed included a member who was ‘vulnerable’ or an essential worker. On average, where
bubbles contained a person identified as vulnerable, individuals left home less than the average
of twice per week, compared with individuals from households not containing a vulnerable
person (Kearns et al., 2021).

While research has shed light on typical New Zealand lockdown bubble characteristics (Kearns
et al., 2021), the student bubble has not been examined. In a pandemic lockdown event,
students isolated in bubble households (many performing as essential workers while coping
with study) could be considered a vulnerable group. This study aimed to understand the
composition and characteristics of student bubbles and to explore the challenges faced by
students during this unprecedented period. The findings of this study will inform vocational and
other education providers and stakeholders about the extent and nature of these student bubble
challenges and therefore, will assist them to better support learners to succeed, during future
forced or mass changes to teaching and learning.

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A quantitative cross-sectional online survey via Survey Monkey was used to investigate the
student lock down bubble experience. Students’ experiences of living and studying in their Alert
Levels 4 and 3 lockdown bubbles were explored using 48 items. The survey was introduced by
an accompanying information sheet, which outlined the purpose of the study and invited
students to begin the survey. It was explained in the information sheet, that respondent consent
to participate in the research was considered as having been given, if they students proceeded
to complete the survey. The information sheet advised students that they could withdraw from
the survey at any stage prior to submission. Further, no questions were compulsory, so students
could skip a particular question if they felt uncomfortable answering. The study had gained
ethical clearance from the Toi Ohomai Institute of Technology Research Committee. The final
page of the questionnaire contained information for participants to indicate where they could
seek help, if they were feeling distressed after completing the questionnaire, and/or as a result
of their lockdown situation.

The survey was made available online for four weeks to students in the Institutes of Technology
and Polytechnic (ITP) sector via the Survey Monkey platform. Five institutes within the ITP
sector, all outside the boundaries of Auckland city, agreed to email the survey link to their
students directly. Students were invited to participate in the survey via direct email through
each institute's student communication channels; the survey was also made available through a
weblink. Any Level 1 to Level 10 student who was currently enrolled as a domestic or
international student within the participating institutions, was eligible to take part in the survey.
Responses from students who were also staff members of the various education providers, were
excluded from the study.

The 48-item survey included demographic data collection items and two open ended questions,
with the remainder of the items consisting of closed-ended ranking and Likert-type scale
questions. Microsoft Excel was used to analyse the quantitative data for the demographic and
descriptive investigation of student bubbles. Of the 48 questions, 14 have been analysed for this
article and the results used to describe the student bubble for ITP students during the Levels 3
and 4 lockdowns in New Zealand. There were 2125 complete responses to these 14 questions.
The remaining questions provided insights into how students dealt with moving to a home-
based learning environment and will be explored in a future paper.

Results and Discussion.

There were 2125 respondents to this online survey investigating the New Zealand Alert Levels
4 and 3 student bubbles. Analysis of respondents’ demographic data reveals that on average,
students studying in the ITP sector tend to be more mature in age. The overall average age was
27 years, although female students were on average, two years younger than males. However,
female students within the sector appear to be a more homogenous group in terms of age
distribution, as shown by the smaller standard deviation compared with male students.

The study sample compares well with the wider ITP sector, which in 2017, found that 58% of
students were over the age of 25 (Tertiary Education Commission, n.d.). However, the
comparison with the Kearns et al. (2020) study, is not easily made, as their study was not
specifically targeted at students, or the ITP sector. The NZ bubble study reflected the general
population, whereas the current study targeted students and investigated student bubbles.
Students who were concurrently staff of ITP organisations, were excluded from this study. Staff

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who are students tend to be older, which would naturally lift the average age of respondents to
above 27.

The average number of people in a student bubble across all respondents was 4.88 individuals,
with a standard deviation (SD) of 5.21. Māori students had 5.05 people in their student bubble
with non-Māori having 4.81. The number of households in which students were also essential
workers was 233 (10.96%), with 53 (9.94%) identifying as international students, and 180
(11.60%) as domestic (local) students. Under 25 respondents numbered 1014 (47.72%), with
the number of individuals in their student bubble averaging 5.10 people.

Table I. Overall Mean Age, Gender and Standard Deviation (SD)

 Type                       Mean age in years        SD in years
 All respondents                  27.8                  9.04
 Male                            27.45                  9.87
 Female                          25.39                  3.39

Table II. Domestic and International Student Mean Age (SD), Mean Level of
Programme (SD) and Mean Bubble Size (SD)

                                       Age              Level of programme        Bubble size
                      n=        Mean          SD          Mean         SD         Mean SD
 Domestic            1553        27.72       10.54         4.85        2.41       4.85 2.52
 International        553        23.39        6.21        6.79*        3.56       6.8* 1.88
 Not disclosed         19       42.18#       15.93         5.52        2.12

   •   *Significantly higher (p
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Table III. Ethnicity of Respondents

 Ethnicity of respondents            N = 2125          %
 New Zealand European                  1183          55.67
 Māori                                  361          16.98
 Samoan                                  26           1.22
 Cook Island Māori                       30           1.41
 Tongan                                  13           0.61
 Niuean                                   7           0.32
 Chinese                                 71           3.34
 Indian                                 354           16.6
 Filipino                                74           3.48
 Nepalese                                64           3.01
 Other                                  250          11.76

N.B. Of the respondents, 308 identified as one or more ethnicities. Therefore, the total
reported is greater than the sample size itself.

As mentioned, domestic student bubble data indicated that Māori students had an average of
5.05 occupants in their household bubble, while non-Māori had an average of 4.81. These
student bubble figures are higher than the national average occupancy rate of 2.7 per household
(Stats NZ, 2020). Statistics show that one in five 20–24-year-olds live in multi-person
households. These may be multiple families together, or groups of completely unrelated people
(Stats NZ, 2020). The data collected in this student bubble study aligns with the Stats N. Z data.

Half the respondents in this study were New Zealand European. The ethnicity distribution of
the remainder highlights some interesting patterns. Māori student participation (17%) at the
ITPs included in this survey, is just below the 20% reported in 2017 (Tertiary Education
Commission, n.d.) and the 22% reported in 2020 (Education Counts, 2021). When combined
with Pasfika student involvement (437 in total) participation is 21%, still below the national
ITP participation (29%) level for this combined group (Education Counts, 2021). The
geographic location of the participating ITPs was outside the area (upper North Island) where
higher enrolments of Pasifika students occur (EHINZ, 2018). Country of origin data among
the students of other ethnic origin in this study, showed that students from India (almost 17%)
were the largest group. This is consistent with their representation across the New Zealand
ITP sector. International students in 2020 were one quarter (25%) of all tertiary students aged
24 or less. A breakdown of student age by country of origin shows that international students
in this study were younger (23 years) than their domestic counterparts (Education Counts,
2021). These patterns in the data are not particular to the ITP sector but apply to the tertiary
sector as a whole. Nonetheless, no study has examined the circumstances of international
students in general New Zealand bubbles.

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Figure 1. Percentages of Student Lockdown Essential Workers, by Industry

       Utilities and communications
              Transport and logistics
           Supermarkets and dairies
                       Social services
  Public safety and national security
               Other (please specify)
     Local and national government
                       Food delivery
 Building and construction of critical…

                                          0          10            20        30       40        50

                                     International             Domestic

N.B. Other is made up of horticulture, primary industries, childcare, and cleaning.

Figure 2. The Number of Student Lockdown Essential Workers, by Industry

                      Utilities and communications
                             Transport and logistics
                          Supermarkets and dairies
                                         Social services
                 Public safety and national security
                              Other (please specify)
                    Local and national government
                                         Food delivery
 Building and construction of critical infrastructure

                                                           0        20       40      60    80        100   120   140

                                                     International        Domestic

N.B. Other is made up of horticulture, primary industries, childcare, and cleaning.

The separate analysis performed of responses from students identifying as Māori aimed to
reveal any differences in their student bubbles compared with other groups. This additional
analysis will inform solutions to increase study success for Māori students in future lockdowns,
or in any other situation in which students may be required to learn from home. There was no
significant difference in the size of the Māori student bubble, with a minor increase in the
average number of people per bubble from under 5 (4.81) for other student bubbles, to over 5
(5.05) for Māori students.

The current study highlighted that international student bubbles were comprised of students
who were, on average, studying at a higher level that their domestic counterparts. Domestic

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respondents were largely studying in programmes at or below New Zealand Qualification
Framework (NZQF) Level 5 (diploma and certificate level study), while international student
respondents were engaged in study at Level 6 and above (degree and post graduate study).
No previous formal study in New Zealand to date has outlined what a student bubble looks like.
On average the student bubble size revealed in this study is greater than that of the general
population, as determined in the research carried out by Kearns et al. (2021). For example, the
mean number of people in an ITP student bubble was 4.9, compared to the 3.5 people in a NZ
average bubble, identified in the Kearns et al. (2021) research. International students surveyed
had a mean bubble size of 6.8 which was significantly higher than the overall mean for all
students (4.9) and Māori (≥5), and the general population mean of 3.5 identified in Kearns et
al. (2021). The larger bubble size shown on average for students, in particular international
students, compared to the general population, may have implications in terms of access to
resources, including access to a suitable study environment. This finding aligns with Kapasia
et al. (2020) who suggest that students face resource limitations such as poor internet
connectivity, the lack of an adequate device and unfavourable study environments at home
(Kapasia et al., 2020).

Table IV. Number/Percentage of Māori Student Essential Workers by Industry

                                                                  n=         Percentage
 Building and construction of critical infrastructure              5            1.38
 Food delivery                                                     3            0.83
 Healthcare                                                       23            6.37
 Local and national government                                     2            0.55
 Other (please specify)                                           25            6.92
 Public safety and national security                               0              0
 Social services                                                   4            1.11
 Supermarkets and dairies                                          4            1.11
 Transport and logistics                                           3            0.83
 Utilities and communications                                      3            0.83

N.B. Other is made up of horticulture, primary industries, childcare, and cleaning.

Māori respondents indicated less involvement in essential work during lockdown than other
respondents. Lastly, there was no significant difference in levels of study for Māori as compared
with all domestic students. The ‘level of study’ used in the current research conforms with the
New Zealand Qualifications Authority Framework (NZQF). There are ten levels of study, based
on their complexity, from Level 1, the least complex, to Level 10, the most complex (NZQA,
2016). Each level defines in broad terms the knowledge or skills a graduate is expected to have
developed upon completion of the learning at the particular level (New Zealand Qualifications
Authority, 2016). Vocational tertiary qualifications are included in the framework from Level
3. Qualifications at Levels 1 – 4 are certificates, while at Levels 5 and 6, they are certificates or
diplomas. Level 7 qualifications are Bachelor’s Degrees, or Graduate Diplomas and Graduate
Certificates. At Level 8, qualifications are Postgraduate Diplomas and Certificates, and
Bachelor Honours Degrees. Finally, Level 9 qualifications are Master’s Degrees and Level 10
are Doctoral Degrees (NZQA, 2016).

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When responding to the item regarding disability, 93 (4.47%) respondents in the study
identified as having a disability; 91.4% of these students, identified themselves as domestic

In the Kearns et al. (2021) study, 45% of those surveyed had an essential worker living in their
household. Whilst in the current research not all student bubbles included an essential worker,
10% of those surveyed worked as an essential worker themselves. Being employed in essential
work while studying may well impact on students’ engagement and success in study, although
further research is required to confirm this. Moreover, no New Zealand-based or international
studies have focused on the experiences of students with a disability during COVID-19, yet 6%
of those surveyed in the current study identified as having a disability.

There has also been limited international research carried out on the characteristics of a student
bubble. For example, no research outside New Zealand could be found at the time of preparing
this article, on the number of people and/or essential workers found in a student bubble. The
research available appears to have focussed on student experiences, such as what did or did not
work well for them.

Undertaking study from home during a pandemic within a set ‘student bubble’ exerts increased
pressure on students, extended family and friends, and places additional pressure on resources:
time, finances and other resources including computer hardware and internet accessibility.
Along with the bubble stresses associated with these tangible resources, the not-so-tangible
factors such as role commitments also have an impact. An example is that of larger domestic
student bubbles of just under 5 (Māori, ≥5), in which whanau role commitments may lead to a
decrease in study success rates. Through clarification of student bubble demographics,
consideration could be given to addressing students’ needs so they can achieve successful study
outcomes (d’Orville, 2020).

As the trend towards online learning, future pandemics, and other factors outside institutes’
control, may in the future force students into similar study and learning environments as during
the COVID-19 lockdowns, it is important to understand what the ‘student bubble’ looks like.
Having a structured approach during various lockdown levels in the future could mean the ITP
sector in New Zealand (Te Pūkenga) adopts a staged approach to the changing learning and
teaching modalities, based on an understanding of the characteristics of student bubbles at Alert
Levels 3 and 4. This research provides detailed insights into the potential barriers to study
success that traditionally may not have been identified for students within the vocational
educational sector.


This study did not include respondents from Auckland ITPs (subsidiaries of Te Pūkenga),
therefore numbers of Pasifika represented in the research are not reflective of the wider enrolled
student population. This online questionnaire was offered during both Level 3 and Level 4
lockdown alert levels, and thus may not reveal the full extent of the effect of the initial (Level
4) lockdown.

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The emergence of COVID-19, and the subsequent lockdown, led to the formation of student
bubbles by the ITP students in this study. Students on average had a higher number of people
in their bubble compared to the general population. This could have been due to a number of
factors including the income level and age of students. An awareness of the composition of
COVID-19 ‘student bubbles’ will enable educators and student support services in the
vocational educational sector (Te Pūkenga) to appropriately respond with programme
development, resourcing and support to ensure the continuity of student learning and
achievement in the event of any future pandemic outbreak or due to other factors outside Te
Pūkenga’s control resulting in ‘lockdown’ events.

Practical implications

Moving to a learning environment within a household bubble places additional pressure on
students, and support may be limited. With the average bubble being just under 5 individuals it
is important for ITPs to facilitate flexibility in learning. For the 10% of students identifying as
essential workers during the pandemic, flexible learning opportunities are important to support
study success. With some groups of students having larger bubbles than others, it is also
important for tutors to make themselves aware of the bubble situation of each student and the
needs associated with that, so the student can be supported by them and the broader student
support services.


   •   Educational systems need to be developed that are responsive in providing technology
       access, literacy support and mental health support, to increase access to learning for all
       students regardless of the situation.
   •   Pastoral support, particularly for international students, is essential to address the
       loneliness and stress which may accompany self-isolation and life in student bubbles.
   •   Mental health and wellbeing associated with students’ feelings while trying to study in a
       bubble situation should be investigated.
   •   Digital equity/universal access should be investigated to minimise impacts on specific
       groups including essential workers, Māori students and those under 25 years of age.
   •   Further research should be carried out on the implications of enforced online learning,
       to develop and implement strategies to minimise barriers to learning and increase student
   •   A structured, detailed and research-based approach to future possible enforced online
       learning should be taken based on careful preparation and stepped implementation plans
       being developed.

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