Money may not buy happiness in the post-2012 sector, NSS suggests

Annual survey shows future low-cost institutions scoring well against the £9K set. Jack Grove writes

August 18, 2011

Students opting for £9,000-a-year degrees in 2012 may be less happy with their courses than those on cheaper programmes, analysis of the National Student Survey results suggests.

Twelve universities charging the maximum tuition fee next year delivered below-average student satisfaction scores, according to the annual survey published on 17 August.

Based on a grade-point average across all questions asked, six Russell Group institutions - the universities of Manchester, Birmingham and Edinburgh, Imperial College London, Queen's University Belfast and King's College London - featured in the bottom half of the rankings.

Average scores for 1994 Group universities were also higher - albeit by a small margin - than those for Russell Group members, scoring 4.08 out of five compared with 4.04.

GuildHE institutions were close behind on 4.0, University Alliance members averaged 3.97 and Million+ universities 3.94, with a sector-wide average of 3.99.

Paul Wellings, vice-chancellor of Lancaster University and chair of the 1994 Group, said: "It's a complex picture because 2011 has been a transitional year for many universities.

"There will also be challenges about maintaining student satisfaction scores as we go through further transitions in funding."

Commenting on the 1994 Group's performance, he added: "Most of our institutions are campus-based and medium-sized compared with those in large civic centres.

"Campus universities tend to be very intimate places and that has a big effect on scores.

"For somewhere like Sheffield to do well is outstanding as it is in a large urban centre."

Overall, the University of Cambridge had the most students who said they were "mostly" or "definitely" satisfied with the quality of their course (94 per cent).

It was closely followed by the University of Oxford, the University of St Andrews, The Open University, St Mary's University College Belfast, and the private University of Buckingham, which took top spot last year. All five scored 93 per cent.

Excluding art institutions and further education colleges, Bournemouth University had the least satisfied students after its approval ratings fell five points to 71 per cent.

A spokesman for Bournemouth said the results were "disappointing", but said internal surveys showed more encouraging scores.

Analysis by Times Higher Education showed a disparity between satisfaction scores and 2012 tuition fee levels at many universities.

The University of the Arts London, Middlesex University and the School of Oriental and African Studies, University of London achieved below-average scores despite setting pre-waiver fees at £9,000 next year.

The Institute of Education, University of London was the clear leader when fees were compared to satisfaction scores - achieving the third-highest GPA across all questions, with 2012 fees set at £7,500.

Several other universities setting average fees around £7,500 also produced relatively contented students.

Coventry University and the universities of Derby, Greenwich and Huddersfield registered satisfaction results well above the sector average.

Liam Burns, president of the National Union of Students, said he doubted applicants would take comparisons of NSS scores and fees into account when choosing courses.

"Even so, the level of fees charged by institutions clearly bears little relation to student satisfaction, financial need or support offered," he added. "Ministers' claims that the new marketised fee arrangements put power in the hands of students have been shown to be spurious."

Overall, satisfaction in the UK rose from 82 per cent in 2010 to 83 per cent this year.

The highest ratings went to university teaching, which achieved a score of 84 per cent satisfaction, up 1 percentage point on 2010.

Assessment and feedback was once again the area students were least happy with - but scores climbed from 66 per cent to 68 per cent.

There were improvements in six of the seven categories assessed by students, with only learning resource satisfaction remaining static at 80 per cent.

But Craig Mahoney, chief executive of the Higher Education Academy, warned of future difficulties.

He said: "Cuts in resource and changes to student finance will increase the challenge of sustaining and improving student satisfaction.

"Higher education institutions will need to concentrate on support for learning and teaching (because) prospective students, parents and sponsors expect outstanding learning across the sector."

Around 265,000 final-year students responded to the survey, which is conducted for the Higher Education Funding Council for England, an increase of 13,000 participants. The response rate was 65 per cent.

David Willetts, the universities minister, welcomed the scores, which he said were "high on average".

"There are some areas, such as the quality of feedback, where many institutions could do better," he said, adding that the higher education reforms would "deliver a new focus on the quality of the student experience".

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