The year's NSS has introduced new questions intended
to get to the heart of issues that are important to students and their learning
outcomes; the NSS is now being used to measure institutional performance as
part of the Teaching Excellence Framework (TEF), and because of the link to the TEF and ultimately tuition fees, the NSS has become a point of contention for
students in England.
What do the results tell us?
The overall satisfaction score across the UK is down from the record high of 86% to 84%. Although any dip in satisfaction is a cause for concern it is fair to say these are strikingly high numbers. Students are also particularly satisfied with the teaching on their course (85%) and the resources that they have available for their studies (85%), which reflects the ongoing investment in these areas.
The NSS also includes new questions to cover areas that are important to prospective students and universities. 84% of students are satisfied with the opportunities to learn, explore and apply new ideas and concepts, 77% felt that they were part of a community of students and staff and had opportunities to learn with other students and 73% felt that their feedback on the design of courses was valued and that student unions represented their interests. These questions also highlight the importance that students place on a personal relationship with their university – as reflected in UUK's recent report Education, consumer rights and maintaining trust: what students want from their university.
As this is a new survey with new questions and a revised method of collection care should be taken when comparing questions from one to the next, even if these questions are the same. Nevertheless, below the dip in the top line satisfaction score the largest dip was in relation to organisation and management of the course, which dropped by 4% in England and Scotland, and 2% in Wales.
Notably, part time students feel less engaged in their university community. This trend is particularly pronounced in England where only 56% feel they are part of the community. 45% of part time students understand how course feedback has been acted on, in comparison to 72% and 62% full time students. Part time students usually work or have family commitments, will live away from other students, progress more slowly than full time students and may even commute further. This is an ongoing and important challenge for the sector.
The boycott and the future for the NSS
The other notable factor in this year was the boycott of the NSS based on the National Union of Students (NUS) opposition to the relationship between the TEF and fee increases. Although 12 universities did not report results due to the boycott this doesn't seem to have had a significant impact on the overall results, but this doesn't preclude wider impacts from the campaign. In the end 172 more institutions participated, principally alternative providers and Further Education colleges, due to the NSS's role in the TEF.
This does raise some questions about the on-going role of the NSS. The NSS was developed as an essential tool to help the sector understand the overall satisfaction of students and help to aid student choice. Institutions are able to reflect on their performance and benchmark themselves against their peers. The NSS has been built into league tables and the key information set, and in England it is also a part of the accountability framework through annual provider review.
The role of the NSS in the TEF also raises some important questions. Student satisfaction is an inherently important measure but its wider relationship with teaching excellence does merit consideration as the TEF develops. Further politicisation of the NSS due to its link with fees would also be a concern. As the new architecture in England and across the UK develops it will be important to ensure that the NSS can continue to deliver on its core aims while also supporting the wider set of demands that are being placed on it.
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