Leader: Survey needs the absentees

August 25, 2006

The results of the second National Student Satisfaction Survey will come as a relief to ministers and the survey's organisers. Students are still overwhelmingly satisfied with their courses, and there is enough consistency in the results to demonstrate that last year's findings were not a one-off. It seems that, with the shining exception of the Open University, it really is the small to medium-sized all-rounder universities that breed the most contentment. Feedback and assessment remain problematic in many subjects, but the overall message from both years' surveys is positive.

Another conclusion to be drawn from this week's results is that some universities are trying harder than others to reach the 50 per cent response threshold for inclusion in the survey. And is it a coincidence that those who did not achieve the necessary response rate are predominantly from the upper reaches of the league tables, where anything less than a sparkling verdict may damage an institution's standing? With the London School of Economics and University College London among those joining Cambridge, Oxford and Warwick universities in the ranks of the absentees, half of the top ten (and four of the top five) in The Times Good University Guide are missing this year. Overall response rates are down on 2005, partly because universities responded to criticism that they had been overenthusiastic in pursuing students to respond to the inaugural survey. But it has still required persistence to persuade half of all final-year undergraduates to reply. Anything less ensured a (possibly welcome) absence from the survey.

With a handful of Scottish universities joining and some of last year's absentees reaching the threshold for the first time, the total number of institutions in the survey is up. Buckingham University, too, is sure to benefit from its inclusion. But any suspicion that leading universities are opting out will threaten the long-term prospects of a valuable exercise. The survey has begun to prove its worth, not just as a source of information for potential applicants but also as a spur to improvement. Some institutions have extended library opening hours as a response to last year's results and others have acted on areas of weakness in provision for students. Now that the results have been shown to be more reliable than critics predicted, the funding council should preserve the survey's future by reducing the threshold. If a sample of, say, a third of students produced similar results, the cost and administrative effort would become more sustainable and there would be even less excuse for well-resourced universities to be missing.

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