The problem with the National Student Survey 2019
Is it possible to measure satisfaction? Source: Geoff Caddick/AFP

The results of the UK’s latest National Student Survey (NSS) are out. According to the 2019 publication, overall, students are more satisfied with their course, even if it’s just the slightest rise from 83 percent of 330,000 students in the UK to 84 percent.

At the top is the University of St Andrews once again. This is its 11th time in this position in the past 13 years. Aberystwyth University and the Conservatoire for Dance and Drama take second and third spots respectively.

St Andrews’ Vice Principal of Education (Proctor) Clare Peddie said this shows the Scottish university’s “commitment to the very highest standards of learning, teaching and student experience”.

“The St Andrews experience is the experience of a lifetime; promising the highest quality support, direct contact with some of the best researchers in the world, an international and diverse community, unique traditions, a wide range of extra-curricular activities, and world-class facilities,” she continued.

Launched in 2005, the NSS surveys final year undergraduates at all publicly funded higher education institutions to assess the quality of their degree programmes. It included 27 questions on areas such as teaching, learning opportunities and academic support. It is commissioned by the Office for Students (OfS) and independently conducted by Ipsos Mori.

While it may seem harmless, in 2017, the National Union of Students (NUS) asked students to boycott the survey. Since results form part of the Teaching Excellence and Student Outcomes Framework (TEF) metrics, the NUS feared it would be used to justify future tuition fee increases.

This is on top of other criticisms the NSS has faced since its launch, such as being an unreliable tool wrongly used by marketing departments and universities that spend thousands on student incentives to fill in the survey. Universities that fail to score highly and slip down the league tables are used as a warning to students that their job prospects could suffer as a result.

“‘Satisfaction’ is the wrong thing to measure in a university. What counts is whether the student has been intellectually challenged in a supportive environment,” an NUS boycott pamphlet wrote.

This year, the NSS continued. Around 330,000 students across 400 HEIs completed the  NSS 2019, garnering about 10,000 responses, two percent more than last year.

The OfS translates this year’s results into students being “more satisfied” with their courses and universities. Proctors at universities at the top of the table are happy to showcase their position in the survey as proof their institutions are doing a great job and supporting good student outcomes.

But the structural problems that have long plagued the annual survey remain.

Nick Hillman of the Higher Education Policy Institute (HEPI) said the NSS is “of very limited value” when it comes to understanding student experience.

“It only covers final-year undergraduates, ignores contact hours/workload and is too anodyne to be properly useful as a resource,” he explained.

“In my view, it is time for the survey to be completely revamped. Until this happens, there will continue to be no official data on how hard students really work.”

Times Higher Education’s analysis revealed that a number of universities have seen large falls in their ratings, despite the overall up tick in satisfaction. Leeds Trinity University fell about 100 places (10 points) down the league table for large providers. The University of Lincoln and University of Buckingham dropped out of the top 20 and 10 respectively. Meanwhile, the University of East London saw its score drop from 85 percent to 80 percent.

The universities at the bottom three positions are: Ravensbourne University London, Glasgow School of Art and the University of the Arts London.

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