Part-time students risk feeling ‘marginalised or isolated’

National Student Survey (NSS) data reveals over 40% of part-time students do not feel part of the student community

Part-time students are less likely to feel part of their university or college communities, and less likely to feel that their voices are heard – according to new analysis of National Student Survey (NSS) data.

The NSS asks UK students 27 questions on a range of issues, including teaching and feedback, library resources and the quality of courses. It is one of the biggest student surveys in the world.

Since 2008, the proportion of students saying they are satisfied with their course has never fallen below 80 per cent. However, the new analysis highlights variations in how different student groups have responded to other questions in the survey.

Room for improvement

Just 56.6% of part-time students agreed that they felt a part of a community of students. This compares to 69.4% of full-time students and is well below the part-time benchmark of 63.7%.

Furthermore, in 2019 only 47.6% of part-time students agreed that their feedback had been acted on by staff – 13.8 percentage points behind their full-time peers and 7.5 percentage points below the expected benchmark.

The analysis also raises concerns about the experience of disabled and BAME students:

  • In 2019, 66.2% of disabled students agreed that their course is ‘well organised and running smoothly’ – over 4 percentage points below their non-disabled peers and 3 percentage points below the benchmark.
  • In 2019, 67% of Asian students and 67.8% of black students agreed that ‘marking and assessment has been fair’, compared to 75.3% of white students. This is 5.7 percentage points and 6 percentage points below the respective benchmarks.

“The NSS is testament to a higher education sector which is generally well regarded by the students who pass through it,” the report says. “That overall satisfaction is consistently over 80% shows that, for most, the sector is providing a high-quality education. The NSS has helped drive a number of improvements, such as universities and colleges becoming more responsive to student needs, and increasing the importance placed on high-quality teaching and pedagogy.

“This is not to argue that there are no remaining areas where the sector or the survey can improve. There remain variations at provider level, with some universities and colleges seeing far lower scores than the headline figure of 83%. Digging beneath the headline figure unearths concerns about the experience of underrepresented groups – students from minority ethnic backgrounds being less sure that marking and assessment is fair, disabled students who are less satisfied with the way their course is managed, and part-time students feeling isolated from the learning community. These concerns need to be addressed.”

There are also variations between individual universities and colleges. While most have an overall satisfaction of more than 81%, over 100 have overall satisfaction of 80% and under.

Part-time students may be particularly at risk of feeling marginalised or isolated – Nicola Dandridge

Nicola Dandridge, chief executive of the Office for Students, said:

“The National Student Survey has been, and remains, an invaluable tool for capturing student opinion and driving improvements across universities and colleges. Indeed, the survey has had a real impact in enhancing students’ experiences of higher education and encouraging universities and colleges to respond meaningfully to its findings. The extent to which feedback to students has improved is testament to its positive impact.

“Equally, while the overwhelming majority of students report high levels of satisfaction with the academic support they receive, some do not. Different students have different priorities and needs, and universities and colleges should carefully consider areas where some groups may be less well served than others – as this data shows, part-time students may be particularly at risk of feeling marginalised or isolated.

“The OfS is working with our UK partners on planning a range of development work to ensure the NSS survey remains relevant and useful for today’s students and those in the future.”

Currently the NSS is mainly completed only by final-year students. The OfS will soon announce a consultation on a pilot project expanding the survey to non-final year students.

Part-time undergraduate numbers “haemorrhaging”

The analysis follows a Hepi report earlier this month on the declining number of part-time adult students. This warned that their “extinction beckons” in many universities, unless a radical policy shake-up comes soon.

Between 2011/12 and 2017/18, the number of adults in England starting a part-time undergraduate course within the UK reduced by 60%, the report states, adding: “policymakers appear unable to stop the haemorrhaging”.

The decline meant HE would become the preserve of 18-year-olds, which would hamper social mobility and eradicate “second-chance transformations”, the report concluded.

The paper – Unheard: the voices of part-time adult learners (Hepi Report 124) – by Dr John Butcher of the Open University (OU) collates views and opinions from adult learners on how university could be made more accessible.

Read more: Extinction beckons for part-time adult learning 

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