National Student Survey: satisfaction drops slightly

Although figures are broadly similar to previous years, they do not cover the period most universities were teaching online during the coronavirus pandemic

Student satisfaction in UK higher education providers remains “stable”, the Office for Students’ has concluded today as it published the results of the latest National Student Survey. 

According to figures collected through the annual National Student Survey (NSS), 83% of final-year undergraduates at UK universities were satisfied with the quality of their course – 1% lower than in 2019. Turnout and satisfaction were “marginally” lower than in previous years, but remained broadly “stable”, the regulator for English HE providers concluded. 

In total, 311,432 UK students completed the survey – the response rate for 2020 was 68.6%, which compares with 71.9% in 2019 and 70.1% in 2018.

The survey was conducted between 6 January and 30 April, therefore overlapping with the outbreak of Covid-19 and the UK’s lockdown at the end of March. 

The Office for Students (OfS) concluded that the pandemic and lockdown had no discernible impact on the final NSS scores, because there was no substantial difference in the number, or type, of responses submitted in late March and April when compared with the same period in previous years.

The regulator has used 11 March to define the beginning of the Covid period because it is the date that the World Health Organisation (WHO) declared coronavirus a global pandemic.

Now more than ever, the survey results demonstrate how important it is for universities to communicate changes effectively, run courses as smoothly as possible, and listen carefully to student feedback
– Nicola Dandridge, OfS 

However, the figures released today may not be an accurate appraisal of the sector’s performance through the Covid-19 pandemic for two key reasons. Firstly, the NSS survey asks students to reflect on the duration of their undergraduate course, not their most recent experiences. Furthermore, the figures released by OfS make it likely that a very small percentage of students would have submitted their response to the survey after they had begun distance learning.

Only 21% of respondents replied to the survey after 11 March, but lockdown and distance learning at UK universities came into effect later on.

Lockdown measures in England were not announced until 23 March and not introduced until 26 March. The OfS itself did not change its advice on Covid-19 to universities until 19 March, when it formally announced it would relax its regulatory regime during the pandemic.

On 13 March, The London School of Economics became the first university in the UK to announce that it would move all teaching online, with classes transitioning by 23 March. Several providers quickly followed suit with similar announcements that same day; the universities of Liverpool and Bristol announced plans to move to online-only delivery from 16 and 18 March, respectively. 

Students were also on their Easter holidays for several of the first weeks of the pandemic. Teaching terms at most universities concluded in the final week of March and did not restart until mid or late April.

With the evidence available, it implies few of the 21% of respondents who completed their survey after 11 March would have experienced distance learning for a prolonged period. A recent YouthSight survey for the Higher Education Policy Institute suggests that less than half (42%) of students are ‘satisfied’ with the quality of online teaching during the lockdown and a third (33%) are unsatisfied.

Elsewhere in its report, the OfS said that students have continued to report comparatively lower rates of satisfaction with how their courses are organised and how effectively changes are communicated by their university or college. For full-time students in England, just 67% agreed their course had been well organised and 62% said it was clear students’ feedback had been acted on. These metrics had “typically been lower” in recent years, the OfS said but represented crucial areas for universities to improve on as they adapt their provision with student feedback after coronavirus. 

Nicola Dandridge, chief executive of the OfS said: “Now more than ever, the survey results demonstrate how important it is for universities to communicate changes effectively, run courses as smoothly as possible, and listen carefully to student feedback. This is even more important in the context of the coronavirus pandemic – hence the guidance that we recently published stating that students should be given timely information about how the delivery of their courses will change next year.”

Part-time students were noticeably less satisfied with their HE experience than full-time students. For example, less than half (49%) of part-time students in England agreed that their feedback had been acted on by staff – a figure 13 percentage points lower than that for full-time students. NSS data relating to students with protected characteristics, such as ethnicity or disability, will be published “at the end of summer”, the OfS said today. National Student Survey

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