Leader: Generally sunny, but some clouds

September 9, 2005

Only when the full results are published later this month will it be fair to judge the success, or otherwise, of the first National Student Satisfaction Survey. But already a mixed picture is emerging - and not just from the surprising conclusion that philosophers are higher education's most satisfied students. The comparison of different subjects contains some valuable information beyond the generally favourable overall satisfaction levels. But the absence of three universities, reported in last week's Times Higher , suggests that the survey is dangerously vulnerable to manipulation. The fact that those universities are Oxford, Cambridge and Warwick will make the trait more noticeable, but it is just as likely that future boycotts will be at institutions that emerge poorly from the survey. If the Government's expensive initiative is to meet original expectations, it should give prospective students a full account of their options - preferably throughout the UK. While the threshold for publication remains a 50 per cent response rate, there is an open invitation to universities, let alone individual departments, to disguise their performances. Who knows how much research would be suppressed if that standard was applied throughout higher education?

Even in its partial state, however, the survey contains important messages for academics. The most obvious is that students are generally content, as similar exercises in Scotland and at many individual universities suggested they would be. With all but two groups of subjects registering a median score of between 3.8 and 4.2 out of 5 for overall satisfaction, the differences should not be exaggerated. But as a signal to waverers in the year that top-up fees are introduced, it is a welcome outcome.

If there is one cautionary note, it is in the responses on feedback and assessment, which produce markedly lower satisfaction levels than other areas of inquiry. The contrast between a median score of almost 4 out of 5 for teaching and barely 3.5 for feedback and assessment is especially stark in a survey where scores are so closely bunched together. The result chimes with anecdotal evidence from many undergraduates frustrated at the paucity of opportunities for detailed progress reports. As with so many issues surrounding the quality of higher education, there is a link with staffing levels. As fees and students' expectations rise, so will the pressure for more recruitment to address this blot on the academic landscape.

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