The National Student Survey (NSS) will no longer ask students how satisfied they are with their university course, the Office for Students (OfS) confirmed today as it published the results of a cross-UK consultation on the future of the census.
The survey, launched in 2005, is completed by over 300,000 final-year UK undergraduate students each year. Data from the census underpins several leading league tables, including the Guardian University Guide and the Good University Guide.
The NSS is also a cornerstone of the OfS regulatory apparatus, helping the watchdog in England develop its Teaching Excellence and Student Outcomes Framework (TEF) awards and monitor student outcomes.
Universities minister Michelle Donelan revealed plans for the review of the survey in September 2020, saying the government was concerned that the NSS is “open to gaming”, expensive and bureaucratic. She blamed the “extensive use of the NSS” in university league tables for promoting courses to students that are “easy and entertaining, rather than robust and rigorous”.
Although Ms Donelan conceded that student perspective should “play a valuable role” in monitoring universities, she said providers should “educate their students to high standards rather than simply to seek ‘satisfaction’”.
In a nod to Donelan’s speech, the OfS said it would ditch the word ‘satisfaction’ from the final question of the NSS, which asks students to grade their response to the following statement: “Overall, I am satisfied with the quality of the course.”
The course satisfaction figure is the one most frequently cited in university marketing materials and league tables. The OfS said it would examine options for a replacement question in the second part of its consultation, which will consider what role the NSS should have in higher education regulation.
The second part of the OfS consultation will also review the other 26 NSS questions “to ensure they remain fit for purpose and stand the test of time”. Other questions under consideration include asking students to rate their experience of online learning and their participation in the learning process.
The OfS worked with the Higher Education Funding Council for Wales, Scottish Funding Council and the Department for the Economy in Northern Ireland during the NSS review. Any changes to the annual student census will need to be signed off by all four nations of the UK.
In her speech announcing the NSS review, Donelan suggested the results of the survey should no longer be made public. The OfS disregarded this suggestion, concluding it “highly unusual for a UK-regulated sector, with significant opportunities for consumer choice, for a consumer feedback mechanism not to be published”.
Following concerns raised by the universities minister that the survey was open to exploitation, the OfS said it would “make clearer to students what constitutes inappropriate influence and how to report it”.
However, it dispelled concerns about a link between the NSS and grade inflation, saying it could “find [no] evidence of a systemic issue of grade inflation or a lowering of standards from providers or students” from universities with higher than average NSS scores.
Although the OfS heard “anecdotal” evidence that suggests some academics inflate grades to court student favour, it found no statistical evidence to suggest this was widespread. The reviewers concluded: “We found that grade inflation existed before the introduction of the NSS and that the marked increase in grade inflation occurred around five years after the first year of the survey. This makes it unlikely that the NSS is the sole cause of grade inflation.”
We are taking forward the robust recommendations of the review group to ensure that the NSS improves its usefulness and reduces needless burden for those who use it
– Michael Barber, chair of the OfS
No option proposed for reducing the cost or scale of the NSS – such as using sample groups or staggering the poll across different universities – was considered as statistically effective as the current census. But the steering group thought a large, stratified sample or a national biennial survey might be “good enough” as a cheaper compromise position.
The OfS and its counterparts in the devolved nations agreed to promote future survey results to students as an impartial source of data on students’ academic experience. Data from future surveys should be “easier to use for those with limited statistical awareness”, the review recommended.
Academics were more likely to report misgivings with the OfS than senior staff, the review found. The University and College Union (UCU) told the review team some academics “feel under pressure to improve NSS scores because of the high stakes of the survey”. The UCU also warned that universities “often chase ‘quick wins’ such as feedback turnaround times which can lead to additional burden on academic staff”. The OfS said it would talk to universities about appropriate ways to use NSS data, but could not be held liable for how autonomous organisations interpreted the census statistics.
The OfS said it would also consider ways to expand the NSS to undergraduates in all year groups after a consultation survey of more than 1,000 students revealed strong support for the move.
Sir Michael Barber, chair of the OfS, said: “Because of [the NSS’s] importance, it is right that we looked carefully at its wider impacts on quality and standards and that we are taking forward the robust recommendations of the review group to ensure that the NSS improves its usefulness and reduces needless burden for those who use it, while continuing to be a valuable voice for students.”
NUS vice-president (higher education) Hillary Gyebi-Ababio welcomed the review, adding that its recommendations would “improve the value of the survey for students”.
She added: “It is very positive that steps will be taken to overhaul the questions asked and to work with students and students’ unions to report any attempts to influence the survey.
“We look forward to engaging with the next stage of the review to ensure that students’ voices are put at the heart of the survey.”
The OfS consultation included commissioning Youthsight to undertake an opinion poll of more than 1,000 students which included applicants, undergraduates and recent graduates. The NSS review team also conducted an open consultation that received 1185 responses from university leaders and academics.