NSS may be fatally wounded by limbo year, experts fear

Decision to press ahead but not require promotion from universities could lead to ‘patchy’ year of data and damage to survey’s integrity

September 29, 2020
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Running the UK’s National Student Survey (NSS) next year without clarity on the process or on what results will be published raises major ethical questions and is likely to severely damage its integrity, it has been warned.

The concerns were raised after the Office for Students (OfS) responded to the Westminster government’s instruction for it to carry out an immediate “radical, root-and-branch” review of the survey, a response that also appeared to hint at major tensions between the regulator and ministers.

In its statement, the OfS said that due to the contract for the delivery of the 2021 NSS having “already been awarded”, the survey would still go ahead next year despite the review, the first stage of which will report by December.

However, universities will not be required to promote the survey and “any decision on what to publish from the NSS and at what level” would not be made until the outcome of the review.

Camille Kandiko Howson, associate professor of education at Imperial College London, said the situation could lead to universities only promoting the survey if they thought they would do well or needed the results for performance-management reasons.

It was also “ethically…difficult for institutions to ‘sell’ the survey to students, when it is not clear if institutions will receive data of any statistical use, if it will feed into league tables, comparison websites or the TEF [teaching excellence framework]”.

The outcome could be a “year of patchy data collection”, something that “would do extreme damage to the integrity of the survey”, Dr Kandiko Howson said, although “this may well be the plan” given the desire for a major overhaul.

Matthew Andrews, university secretary and registrar at the University of Gloucestershire, also speculated whether a year of questionable data “could be part of an agenda [from government] that is focused on reducing these sorts of student feedback” in favour of using other methods such as employment outcomes.

He added that if it was already too late to abandon next year’s survey, “let’s do it properly and do the review alongside it so that we can make any more substantial changes for 2022, rather than this odd half-and-half solution that we’ve ended up with”.

“It seems to leave the survey this year just in limbo. It leaves a great sense of uncertainty about to what extent we should promote it,” said Dr Andrews, who also raised the question of “research ethics” over asking students to complete it without clarity on publication.

He also pointed to the apparent “dissonance” in messaging between the regulator and the government, with OfS chief executive Nicola Dandridge emphasising the “important role” played by the NSS over the last 15 years against ministers’ insistence it had “exerted a downwards pressure on standards”.

Dr Kandiko Howson too said that the OfS announcement “shows the poor communication between the regulator and the DfE [Department for Education]” and said it appeared there was “a real breakdown in their relationship”.

simon.baker@timeshighereducation.com

POSTSCRIPT:

Print headline: 2021 NSS mess raises ‘ethical questions’

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Reader's comments (3)

The NSS has little integrity as it is... it's incredibly flawed and it baffles me quite why so much attention is paid to it anyway! The questions are so poor that it provides minimal information to help universities improve delivery in any meaningful way. Students who are stretched and challenged intellectually may rate the experience as less satisfactory than those who are allowed to drift gently through their courses - but they benefit much more from it!
"The NSS has little integrity as it is..." Precisely, it is laughable that people keep repeating that it has or is valid. Argumentum ad nauseum - repeat it often enough and it becomes true. lol
'It was also “ethically…difficult for institutions to ‘sell’ the survey to students, when it is not clear if institutions will receive data of any statistical use, if it will feed into league tables, comparison websites or the TEF [teaching excellence framework]”.' It is bold to assume that it yields data of any statistical use in normal years.

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