All-years National Student Survey ‘huge burden’ on universities

Statistical limitations of results likely to be exacerbated by widening of questionnaire beyond final-year undergraduates, warns researcher

October 21, 2019

Extending the UK’s National Student Survey to cover all undergraduates, not just final-year learners, will place a “huge burden” on universities, an academic has warned.

The English regulator, the Office for Students, said that it planned to pilot an expanded questionnaire over the next two years. This would respond to concerns that students were typically asked to complete the survey when they were doing their final assessments – a time at which they might have limited time to respond or might not feel positively about their institutions.

Emma Maskell, the OfS’ head of student engagement and information, said that including all undergraduates would “give a voice to all students and…provide a much richer picture of the student academic experience”.

But Camille Kandiko Howson, associate professor of education at Imperial College London, said that universities were unlikely to welcome the change.

“Collecting this data from all students every year would place a huge burden on institutions and on students, and I would anticipate response rates plummeting and much of the data being unusable,” said Dr Kandiko Howson, an expert on the use of surveys in higher education.

“The statistical limitations of the NSS are not addressed in the proposals by the OfS, and would be compounded by adding all years of students, when some students had only experienced 12 weeks of study and may not have any experience of assessment and feedback, for example.”

The NSS asks 27 questions of students, relating to eight aspects of the student experience. Overall, 84 per cent of UK students reported being satisfied with the quality of their course in this year’s exercise, up from 83 per cent in 2018.

The OfS said that it was proposing a “wider overhaul of the NSS – the biggest since its introduction”. It is planning a “comprehensive review and testing of the survey questions…to ensure they remain fit for purpose, making changes where appropriate”. And it is also looking to “explore new survey questions around student mental health and wellbeing provision”.

Ms Maskell said that there would be a consultation in spring 2020.

But Dr Kandiko Howson highlighted that the OfS had “eliminated academics from sector-wide advisory groups” set up under its predecessor organisation, the Higher Education Funding Council for England, “meaning the proposed changes will not have the same level of sector engagement as previously and are more likely to meet the political desires of the OfS rather than the needs of students or institutions”.

“The survey has run largely intact for 15 years. It is due a full rethink rather than tinkering with questions and expanding it,” Dr Kandiko Howson said.

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