Universities that draw attention to the effect of National Student Survey results on graduates’ employment prospects could be made to rerun the questionnaire, the Higher Education Funding Council for England has warned.
Guidance issued by the funding council says that encouraging undergraduates “to reflect anything other than their true opinion of their experiences during their course” would amount to “inappropriate influence”.
In addition to being required to cover the costs of re-surveying students, institutions could be made to foot the bill for an independent investigation, or could have their results left out of the national release, with a note explaining that this was due to concerns about data quality.
Universities could also be made to undergo an audit of their processes in the following survey year, potentially having to have all internal survey material approved by Hefce.
Examples of inappropriate influence in the Hefce guidance range from explicit or implicit instruction on the type of responses that students should make to a much broader kind of guidance.
The document says that inappropriate influence could include “drawing attention to uses of the survey that may influence [students’] response”, such as its “use in league tables” and its “impact on employers’ perceptions” of institutions – and hence the job prospects of graduates.
The document was issued at a time when the results of the NSS are set to take on even greater importance, as a key metric in the teaching excellence framework. Institutions’ results could ultimately determine whether they are allowed to increase their tuition fees.
There are also growing concerns about the integrity of NSS results, with a study for Hefce highlighting the growing phenomenon of “yea-saying”, whereby students give the same (usually positive) answer to every question. In 2014, this accounted for 6.1 per cent of all online responses, up from 1 per cent in 2005, with the Hefce report warning that universities’ “overzealous promotion” of the NSS “could lead students to rate their institutions more generously”.
The guidance document says that concerns about the integrity of NSS results could be raised through funding bodies’ data management and audit processes, or by a third party.
A Hefce spokesman said that a policy of this kind had been in existence since the NSS was introduced.
“In the past, this document has not been publicly available but we feel it is beneficial to publish this so it is clear for students and institutions of the process involved,” the spokesman said. “It is not linked to the TEF or particular complaints.”