Low NSS scores mid-pandemic aimed at government, claims v-c

York leader tells THE Campus Live that ‘tattoo parlours had much more notice’ of Covid restrictions than students

November 25, 2021
Source: iStock

The UK’s record low student satisfaction scores during the pandemic may have partly reflected a “palpable sense of discontent with government” rather than with teaching, a vice-chancellor has claimed.

Speaking at Times Higher Education’s THE Campus Live event, Charlie Jeffery, head of the University of York, said that tattoo parlours were given “much more notice” about Covid restrictions than students, who often felt as if they were the last priority.

The results of this year’s National Student Survey (NSS), the first taken wholly during the pandemic, saw overall satisfaction with course quality hit a record low, while other areas, such as the availability of learning resources, also saw a steep fall in scores given by students.

But Professor Jeffery questioned whether this completely reflected students’ feelings about how universities had adapted teaching during the pandemic.

“Student dissatisfaction last year – who was it aimed at? If you ask your students about what their lecturers did, they’ll say they did a bloody great job,” he told the event.

“I think they were largely dissatisfied with a government that changed the rules for students at the very last minute.

“Tattoo parlours had much more notice about their future than students did and there was a real palpable sense of discontent with government” and it “seeing students as pretty much a last priority on the list. I think some of that fed through into the NSS.”

Professor Jeffery added that he was also “really annoyed” by some of the general media and political language around the move to online learning, that seemed to suggest it was “inherently worse” than in-person teaching and that universities were “cynically exploiting a pandemic” to deliver courses in a worse and cheaper way.

“All of that is nonsense. The effort that colleagues have made to think about how to put their teaching online…they have to spend a lot of time on it, it’s not cheaper,” he said.

His fellow panellists on the session – which discussed the pandemic-related changes to the sector that universities would like to keep in the longer term – made similar points.

Rachel Hewitt, chief executive of the MillionPlus group of modern universities, said that there were “aspects of digital learning that could be really positive for students but I think it’s been made much more difficult by the media narrative”.

“It’s gone very much from ‘Universities are just stuffing too many students in lecture halls’ to ‘Face-to-face lectures are the most important thing.’ It’s a debate that is lacking nuance,” she said.

Helena Gillespie, associate pro vice-chancellor of inclusion at the University of East Anglia and professor of learning and teaching in higher education, said she also wanted to see an end to the “valorisation of the lecture as this sort of great mode of delivery” since the pandemic.

And she added that universities could go further in using digitisation to improve teaching and learning methods, saying exams were one area where the sector still needed to make progress.

“If we’ve still got students sitting in rows, writing on pieces of paper with pens, in 10 years’ time then the sector would have failed,” she said, urging universities to “let go of the idea that the exam is the sort of blue riband assessment event” and “move away from the idea of timed exams and into different sorts of assessment”.

“We did a bit of that in the pandemic, I would like to keep the bit we did, but it’s slipping through our fingers because there is a rush back to the exam hall,” Professor Gillespie said.

simon.baker@timeshighereducation.com

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