Student Satisfaction: Survey-ing A Loss?

Mark Sleightholm questions whether the National Student Survey is worth our time

Mark Sleightholm
27th February 2018

Final year undergraduates are being pestered to fill out the National Student Survey, and will continued to be hassled until the survey closes at the end of April. Prizes are offered to the schools with the highest response rates and claims are made that filling out the NSS is your chance to shape the future of your university. Which isn't necessarily untrue, although maybe not quite in the way you'd expect.

The survey has run every year since 2005 and provides the “student satisfaction” figure in those university league tables you pored over before applying. I'd always thought that satisfaction was a feeling rather than a number, but there you go.

I'd always thought that satisfaction was a feeling rather than a number

The wheels fell off the NSS wagon last year, however, when an uncharacteristically militant NUS launched a nationwide boycott campaign. This was in protest at the inclusion of NSS results in determining universities' grades in the Teaching Excellence Framework – a set of metrics that could have helped universities to raise tuition fees, although that potential link looks pretty thin these days.

Even if the rumours of tuition fee cuts turn out to be true, though, the NSS, and the Teaching Excellence Framework it will feed into, is still worth opposing. How can we seriously reduce everything that makes up someone's university experience – their course, friends, clubs – into arbitrary metrics? It's telling that last year the NSS was redesigned to change the question on satisfaction with students' unions to focus solely on their academic support, completely ignoring everything else unions do for students.

Feedback can be useful, of course, and it's nice to know that our university and union care about what we think. But there's no way that 27 tick-boxes can do any kind of justice to everything you've done and felt at university.

The NSS is too big to be of any use to students

The Union and the University can (and do) ask for feedback on specific areas, and they might get something useful back, but how does knowing that 85% of students feel they have enough study resources available help anybody? The NSS questions are designed for all final year undergraduates across the UK, and a survey that large can only ever ask really generic questions and can't cope with any nuance. The NSS is too big to be of any use to students; all it's good for is an inter-university pissing contest.

Why do we need to measure student satisfaction in such crude terms anyway? One student's satisfaction is another's grave disappointment, and the whole idea of ranking universities and making them compete with one another smacks of marketisation and a decidedly neoliberal approach to higher education.

Why do we need to measure student satisfaction in such crude terms anyway?

Employers, parents, the public at large; many people still think in terms of Oxbridge, Russell Group, ex-poly and so on, regardless of where these universities actually find themselves in the tables. Does it matter to you if Newcastle sits 13 places below Loughborough?

Maybe instead of playing universities off against each other we should focus more on actually improving higher education; league tables will only reinforce ideas about “good” and “bad” universities, when really there are many things – the course, the location, the extra curricular activities, to name a few – that should determine whether that uni is right for you.

Despite the best efforts of NUS last year only 12 universities fell below the required 50% response rate to be discounted from the NSS, although this did include several big hitters like Oxford, Cambridge, Manchester, Sheffield and UCL.

Filling out the NSS survey is a few minutes of your life you'll never get back. But if you actually want to give feedback to your university or union, you're better of just telling them directly.

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