National Student Survey 2016: satisfaction scores stay high in £9K fee era

Scores that will inform teaching excellence framework may herald rise of ‘new elite’

August 10, 2016
St Andrews University student taking part in Raisin Weekend
Source: Getty
Soap star: St Andrews students, seen here at the ‘raisin weekend’ (whose modern equivalent involves covering themselves in foam), rated the university as the joint best institution

Undergraduate satisfaction levels remain high despite the advent of £9,000 tuition fees in England, according to the 2016 National Student Survey.

Eighty-six per cent of the more than 300,000 final-year UK undergraduates who responded to this year’s survey said that they were satisfied with their course, the same as the all-time high recorded in the 2014 and 2015 results.

This year’s ratings are the second to include undergraduates who paid the higher tuition fees introduced in 2012, with all respondents in England bar a handful on five-year courses now on the new fee regime.

In England, overall satisfaction scores stood at 85 per cent – down one percentage point from the previous year. 

In Wales, overall scores rose from 85 to 86 per cent, while results in Scotland and Northern Ireland are unchanged at 86 and 89 per cent, respectively.

This year’s results in England will be among those that feed into the teaching excellence framework (TEF), which will use an average of NSS scores over three years to measure teaching quality. The first full-scale TEF will use the 2016, 2015 and 2014 NSS results.

These scores, as well as data on dropout rates and graduate employment, will help to decide TEF ratings and, thus, the maximum tuition fee that individual institutions can charge.

The most highly rated universities in this year’s NSS, excluding small, specialist institutions, are Keele University and the University of St Andrews, both of which scored 94 per cent overall.

Aberystwyth University, Liverpool Hope University, Bishop Grosseteste University and Harper Adams University all scored 92 per cent.

David Llewellyn, vice-chancellor of Harper Adams, said that the roll-out of the TEF was likely to focus the minds of senior university staff even further on their NSS results.

“Universities will be looking for steady improvements given the three-year average of results that will be considered,” Professor Llewellyn said.

“It’s important to note that the NSS questions will change next year, but the key thing is to continue to engage students with high-quality teaching by enthusiastic staff,” he added.

As in previous years, London universities performed poorly on student satisfaction, with half of the 20 lowest-ranking UK higher education institutions situated in the capital.

The London School of Economics, whose overall score fell 6 percentage points this year to 75, received the lowest score of any university once small and specialist institutions are excluded.

Paul Kelly, pro-director of education at the LSE, said that the school was taking urgent steps to address its poor performance, including investing £11 million in teaching over three years, but its lowly position was not unexpected.

“As an institution, we are not used to coming bottom of any league table, and we are not happy about it, but this is not a surprise,” Professor Kelly said.

The start of large-scale building works linked to a £120 million campus revamp and a one-off system failure around timetabling and room bookings partly explained this year’s poor result, he added.

However, the LSE’s “traditional” assessment methods, which rely on end-of-year closed-book exams rather than the continuous submission of coursework, were also likely to create “high stress”  among students, particularly as they did not know which degree classification they were likely to achieve, leading to lower satisfaction scores, Professor Kelly continued.

The LSE would continue to participate in the TEF even if its lower scores meant “embarrassment in the first instance” because the institution regards rewarding good teaching as an “important agenda”, he said.

In addition to the LSE, six other Russell Group universities returned below average scores in this year’s NSS, giving more credence to the idea that a new elite might emerge from any TEF ranking.

Of the 24 universities to score 90 or above, six are from the 24-strong Russell Group and 15 are campus-based or medium-sized universities outside it. Coventry University and the University of Lincoln are the highest-placed post-92 universities, each scoring 91.

“This new hierarchy is one that people might not expect and which doesn’t match up to their preconceptions,” said Andrew Gunn, researcher in higher education based at the University of Leeds.

Adam Child, senior policy and strategy officer at Lancaster University, who has studied the NSS, said that there was a striking similarity between this year’s NSS rankings and the “mock TEF” rankings produced by Times Higher Education in June, confirming his view that a “new elite” could emerge from the framework.

“Very few universities combine both a high-quality learning experience and research excellence, but a particular type of university can demonstrate these twin tracks of excellence,” said Mr Child, who added that these high performers generally shared characteristics of universities once allied to the now-defunct 1994 Group.

National Student Survey 2016 results: top 20

Rank Institution Satisfaction (%)
=1 University of Buckingham 97
=1 The University of Law  97
3 St Mary's University College 95
=4 Courtauld Institute of Art 94
=4 Keele University 94
=4 University of St Andrews 94
=7 Bishop Grosseteste University 92
=7 Harper Adams University 92
=7 Liverpool Hope University 92
=7 Aberystwyth University 92
=11 Coventry University 91
=11 University of East Anglia 91
=11 University of Exeter 91
=11 Heythrop College 91
=11 Lancaster University 91
=11 University of Lincoln 91
=11 The Royal Veterinary College 91
=11 University of Dundee 91
=11 Stranmillis University College 91
=20 University of Bath 90
=20 University of Cambridge 90
=20 The Conservatoire for Dance and Drama 90
=20 University of Essex 90
=20 University of Kent 90
=20 University of Leeds 90
=20 Medway School of Pharmacy 90
=20 Newcastle University 90
=20 University of Oxford 90
=20 Rose Bruford College of Theatre and Performance 90
=20 The Royal Central School of Speech and Drama 90
=20 University of Surrey 90
=20 Bangor University 90
=20 Swansea University 90
=20 Queen's University Belfast 90

View the full satisfaction results of the National Student Survey 2016

Biggest % point increase

Institution 2015 2016 % point change
University of St Mark and St John 78 89 11
Aberystwyth University 83 92 9
Bishop Grosseteste University 85 92 7
University of Lincoln 85 91 6
University of St Andrews 89 94 5
University of West London 79 84 5
University of Wales Trinity Saint David 79 84 5
University of East London 78 83 5
Wrexham Glyndwr University 80 85 5

Biggest % point decrease

Institution 2015 2016 % point change
Bath Spa University 90 84 –6
London School of Economics and Political Science 81 75 –6
University of Winchester 92 87 –5
Imperial College London 88 83 –5
York St John University 88 83 –5

Highest scoring

Institution 2015 2016 % point change
University of St Andrews 89 94 5
Keele University 95 94 –1
Aberystwyth University 83 92 9
Bishop Grosseteste University 85 92 7
Liverpool Hope University 89 92 3
Harper Adams University 93 92 –1

Lowest scoring

Institution 2015 2016 % point change
London School of Economics and Political Science 81 75 –6
University of Cumbria 78 80 2
University of South Wales 79 80 1
Kingston University 82 80 –2
University of Brighton 83 80 –3
University of Edinburgh 84 80 –4

Source: National Student Survey 2016, excluding small and specialist institutions

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Reader's comments (1)

I was disappointed to see that despite the University of Buckingham coming top of this year's National Student Survey, your article did not even mention the university's name or have any quotes from us. There is only a passing phrase in the article about "excluding small, specialist institutions". Surely the fact that the University of Buckingham has been at the top of the National Student Survey for the last 11 years deserved at least a mention in the article. In addition we are the Times University of the Year for Teaching Excellence. Another great achievement for a university which has about 2200 students from UK and all around the world. Nigel Adams Programme Director BSc Business Enterprise University of Buckingham