NSS fitness hardly a given

September 8, 2011

If you were to believe some parts of the academy, you would think that the National Student Survey is widely viewed as a positive force, providing useful information to both prospective students and academic staff seeking to improve quality.

Paul Ramsden describes the survey as "relatively uncontroversial" ("When I grow up, I want to be spoon-fed", 11 August) and the Centre for Higher Education Studies project he led on behalf of the Higher Education Funding Council for England in 2010 found that it was "generally accepted across the sector". There is, however, another side to the story: research I have conducted has found that the NSS is far from "generally accepted" by academics.

The NSS was originally conceived as a general performance indicator for the sector and a data source for prospective students. These two rationales have latterly been joined by a third - that the survey be used to inform enhancement work. My research has shown that the first two rationales are incompatible with the third. Once these kinds of data enter the public domain, senior staff come under pressure to improve raw scores, with less thought given to the underlying causes of poor performance or the survey's theoretical underpinning. This is an unavoidable occurrence, but means that the NSS cannot perform all three roles being asked of it at the same time.

In addition, the NSS is seen as a generically applied top-down initiative. Initiatives described as such rarely succeed in winning the hearts and minds of academic staff who naturally identify with their specific contexts, whether disciplinary or institutional. Recent comments in these pages relating to the development of teaching qualifications for academics appear to back this up.

I would argue that there are many issues with the NSS that require further investigation. There needs to be a far more robust discussion about the merits and demerits of this and other similar surveys and an open debate about what we as a sector would like to achieve with this form of information.

Adam Child, Assistant registrar, Lancaster University

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