NSS should not include questions on free speech, says vice-chancellor

Prof Graham Galbraith – who has led the University of Portsmouth for nearly a decade – said he remembers the impact the National Student Survey had on the sector when it first launched

The purpose of the National Student Survey (NSS) should be to collect views on student experience and not freedom of speech on campuses, a vice-chancellor has said.

Prof Graham Galbraith – who has been vice-chancellor of the University of Portsmouth since 2013 – declared his enthusiasm for the NSS, describing it as “transformational” for higher education in the UK since it launched in 2005.

Speaking to delegates at a Westminster Forum conference on the future direction of the NSS and the Teaching Excellence and Outcomes Framework, Prof Galbraith attacked any notion of the government using the national student census to gather “its own information about aspects of the sector that it may want to regulate further, for example, free speech”.

“I think we’ve got to be careful that the questions that are asked are directly about the individual student experience at university and are not seeking personal opinions or speculation about other factors related to their higher education experience. In other words, it’s really important the tool is focused on improving and enhancing student and experience,” he explained.

Last week, the 2022 NSS launched nationwide – accompanied by a pilot organised by the Office for Students of new questions relating to wellbeing and freedom of speech. Question 30 of the pilot reads: “During your studies, have you felt free to express your ideas, opinions, and beliefs?”

In September 2020, announcing the NSS review, HE minister Michelle Donelan said providers should “educate their students to high standards rather than simply to seek ‘satisfaction’”. Subsequently, question 27 – “Overall, I am satisfied with the quality of the course” – is binned in the pilot, with the OfS replacing it with the not-all-together different: “Overall, how would you rate the quality of your course?”

The pilot survey questions trialled in 2022 “are likely to replace the existing question”, the OfS said in summer 2021.

Ministers had, in recent years, characterised the exercise as “open to gaming”, expensive and bureaucratic.

If your results can be benchmarked against other providers, then it becomes an incentive to drive up performance
– Prof Graham Galbraith, University of Portsmouth

“I do welcome the fact that it looks as if the government has changed its mind somewhat. And it looks like the government is now more committed to NSS than it was before,” Prof Galbraith said.

Over 300,000 final-year UK undergraduate students complete the survey each year. Data from the census underpins several leading league tables, including the Guardian University Guide and the Good University Guide.

Said the Portsmouth vice-chancellor: “I’ve experienced life before NSS and life after NSS. And I must real strongly state that it is my view that NSS was transformational when it was introduced into the higher education sector, because for the first time there was an attempt to listen to what students felt, and to try and understand whether learning and teaching truly was effective for the students.”

“In the past, it was common for lecturers not to turn up to lectures or to turn up late,” Prof Galbraith said, recalling his three decades in HE. “If the NSS stopped tomorrow, I am certain that the most enlightened institutions would carry on with a form of NSS. But it wouldn’t be as effective because it wouldn’t be nationally benchmarked.” He added that it was vital universities across the UK maintained participation to incentivise competition.

“The benefits of a survey like NSS completely outweigh any notion that it may create some bureaucratic burden, I would say. Of course, any survey will, by its nature, be imperfect; it will never be perfect.”

Prof Galbraith ended his comments by arguing that there was merit in expanding the NSS cohort to all undergraduates. “Attitudes change,” he said. “Your lecturing staff in first year may be different from third year, so I think it’s really important for us to be thinking possibly expanding NSS. If your results can be benchmarked against other providers, then it becomes an incentive to drive up performance to enhance performance as an institution.”

Image © University of Portsmouth

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