Office for Students announces details of NSS review

The review of the National Student Survey was commissioned by the universities minister earlier this month

The Office for Students has announced details of its government-commissioned review of the National Student Survey (NSS). 

Universities minister Michelle Donelan revealed plans for the review in a speech to the annual Universities UK (UUK) conference in September. Ms Donelan said the government aims to axe bureaucracy that might distract universities from their core teaching- and research-related activities.

The “radical, root and branch” review ordered by the Department for Education will conclude its first stage by December 2020. Ms Donelan 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”.

“There is a valid concern from some in the sector that good scores can more easily be achieved through dumbing down and spoon-feeding students, rather than pursuing high standards and embedding the subject knowledge and intellectual skills needed to succeed in the modern workplace. These concerns have been driven by both the survey’s current structure and its usage in developing sector league tables and rankings,” Ms Donelan told vice-chancellors.

The OfS will lead a two-stage review of the NSS, which has been conducted every year since 2005. The first stage, which will conclude in winter 2020, will consider if the survey is impacting academic standards and creating bureaucratic burdens on universities. The second stage, which has yet to be given a completion date, will consider what role the survey should have in higher education regulation. 

Alongside these two goals, the OfS will also investigate to what extent data from the NSS should be released to the public.

The 2021 NSS will proceed as normal because “it is not possible to test and pilot any changes to the NSS that might result from the review, to ensure its integrity and statistical validity, in time to capture the experience of students during 2020-21”, the OfS said. 

However, the 2021 results will not be published until after the investigation is completed, to ensure the data released to the public next year is “aligned with the new direction of travel resulting from the review”. 

Nicola Dandridge, chief executive of the OfS, said: “The NSS has played an important role in hearing the voice of students for 15 years, with over 300,000 students responding each year. It is therefore crucial that it is fit for purpose for the future – and that it supports rather than hinders improvements in quality and standards for the benefit of students.

“Our review will look at the evidence around NSS and hear from a range of student and sector voices to gauge the best way for the survey to retain its purpose and stand the test of time in the years ahead.

“In conducting the review, we will liaise closely with the devolved administrations to ensure their perspectives are properly taken into account.”


Read more: Government to axe ‘bureaucratic burdens’ on universities

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