Several major higher education institutions, including the universities of Cambridge, Manchester, Oxford and Sheffield, fail to feature in this year’s National Student Survey table after a student boycott in protest over England’s teaching excellence framework.
Twelve universities have been omitted from the main results of the nationwide student satisfaction survey, published on 9 August, after fewer than 50 per cent of their final-year undergraduates completed the questionnaire.
Overall, about 300,000 students responded to the survey, down from 312,000 in 2016, with the response rate dropping from 72 per cent to 68 per cent.
It follows the decision by about 25 students’ unions to participate in a boycott of the NSS, led by the National Union of Students. The boycott came about after it was announced that, as of this year, the teaching excellence framework will use NSS scores among its metrics. The NUS objected to TEF ratings being used by the government to allow some universities to raise fees in line with inflation – although the plan to create differential fee caps based on TEF ratings was subsequently postponed by the government.
The push to “wreck the TEF” through the boycott or sabotage of the NSS was designed to render the survey results unusable. However, Chris Husbands, the TEF’s chairman and vice-chancellor of Sheffield Hallam University, has stated that NSS scores would have only a limited impact on whether institutions were rated gold, silver or bronze, and that they are not an “accurate proxy for teaching quality”.
The Department for Education has stated that no university will be negatively affected by a student boycott of the NSS, but it was not exactly clear how this would happen, said Camille Kandiko Howson, senior lecturer in higher education at King’s College London.
“It will certainly give institutions more excuses to appeal when they do not get the result they want,” said Dr Kandiko Howson.
She added: “It will be difficult for those assessing the TEF to make distinctions between those with good scores and those who did not return enough results.”
The spread of non-responses across a university – for instance, low response rates in departments with traditionally high levels of satisfaction – could further complicate use of NSS results in future TEFs, as could the issue of sabotage, in which some students return low scores on all questions, added Dr Kandiko Howson.
“If you can say the quality of the data is poor, then it brings into question the integrity of the TEF, which is often making claims for quality based on very small differences,” she said.
Sally Hunt, general secretary of the University and College Union, called for the abolition of the TEF, arguing that the reaction to this year’s results showed that it did not have the support of the academic community, while “the lack of support for this year’s [National Student] Survey shows that many students share these concerns”.
“If the government really wants to improve the student experience, it should abandon the flawed metrics of the teaching excellence framework and focus on tackling the widespread use of insecure contracts in higher education teaching,” said Ms Hunt.
Overall, the NSS scores were slightly down on previous years, with an overall satisfaction rate of 84 per cent compared with 86 per cent in 2016.
However, the Higher Education Funding Council for England cautioned against comparing satisfaction results with previous years, saying that the inclusion of new questions had changed student response patterns.
The University of Buckingham, the Royal Veterinary College and the University of St Andrews achieved the highest scores of 94 per cent, while the London School of Economics received the lowest score for any university (74 per cent) once arts schools and small or specialist institutions were excluded.
Burning bright: NSS top tier
|University of St Andrews||94|
|University of East Anglia||90|
|University of Dundee||90|
|Liverpool Hope University||90|
Hefce. Note: excludes small and specialist institutions
In the doldrums: NSS bottom tier
London School of Economics
Source: Hefce. Note: excludes small and specialist institutions
Click here for full results of the National Student Survey 2017, including small and specialist institutions
In response: higher education sector reacts to the NSS results
Amatey Doku, NUS vice-president (higher education)
“The government wanted to use today’s NSS results to allow universities which scored highly to raise fees from £9,000 to over £10,000 by 2020 as part of their draconian reforms to higher education. Our membership made it clear to us that they found this unacceptable and demanded we campaign to sever any link between their crude teaching excellence framework and a rise in tuition fees which would hit students hard. Figures released today demonstrate just how easily this data can be skewed and how unreliable they are as a measure of teaching quality within this framework. This serves as a reminder that students are opposed to soaring tuition fees and are ready to use their power to challenge any ill-thought changes to the sector which will ultimately see them losing out. We will continue to call for the link between fees and surveys like the NSS and engaging students’ unions across the country to do the same.”
Jo Johnson, minister for universities and science
“While overall student satisfaction remains high, we know there is significant variation in teaching quality and outcomes both within and between providers. There is more to do to ensure that students and taxpayers investing heavily in our higher education system secure value for money from it. That is why we have created a new regulator, the Office for Students, that will systematically hold universities to account for teaching quality and student outcomes through the teaching excellence framework. In the next phase of performance assessment, the TEF will focus on teaching and outcomes at subject level and we are also developing a powerful new teaching intensity metric informed by contact hours and class sizes.”
Alistair Jarvis, chief executive of Universities UK
"Universities in the UK have a well-deserved international reputation for high quality teaching and learning. They are all required to make sure that their provision meets high levels of academic standards and quality as set out in the Quality Code. In recent years, universities have increased their focus on the quality of teaching and invested in learning support. The new data also allow us to see that there are high levels of satisfaction across the sector with learning opportunities (84 per cent), the learning community (77 per cent) and the opportunities for students to participate in their university (student voice – 73 per cent).
“The new questions in this year’s survey and the boycott of the NSS in some universities makes a year-on-year comparisons difficult. For this reason we would urge students and those who advise them on application decisions to take into account a range of information about institutions and courses. Ultimately, there is no substitute for speaking to admissions officers, lecturers and current students to get a feel for the university and course.”
Pam Tatlow, chief executive of MillionPlus
“The National Student Survey has confirmed that students at modern universities continue to rate their teaching experience very highly, which says much about the fine work done by staff and management. This is a fantastic outcome for these universities, which each year educate a million students from a wide range of backgrounds and offer teaching and learning opportunities that range from lectures, tutorials, small group work to placements and projects with employers. These satisfaction rates would be the envy of many organisations in both the private and public sectors and confirm that students who choose to study at a modern university will have the quality teaching and student experience that they deserve.”
Madeleine Atkins, chief executive of Hefce
"The NSS continues to be the largest and most authoritative survey of its kind in the UK. Its role in gathering crucial evidence about the student experience in higher education has been enhanced this year by new questions on student engagement and updated questions to reflect the latest approaches to learning and teaching. The 2017 results show that students provide particularly positive feedback on the quality of teaching and on learning opportunities. Institutions will also, however, be considering carefully how they can continue to improve assessment and feedback, and their broader engagement with students."
David Blaney, chief executive of HEFCW
"It is pleasing that overall satisfaction levels in Wales remain high. The majority of Welsh universities have performed at or above their benchmarks. Wales has performed above the UK average in six of the 11 main thematic areas – including in one of the new areas of the survey, the ‘Student Voice’ – and equalled the UK average in two further areas."
Spokesman for the Russell Group
"Our members provide an excellent learning experience. Collectively, Russell Group universities included in the NSS figures this year have continued to outperform the sector as a whole. Our universities continue to invest millions of pounds in improving the teaching, facilities and services available to our students. This is the first year that some of these questions have been asked as part of the NSS and the overall picture is complicated by the impact of the boycott pursued by the NUS. The NSS is important but we would also encourage potential students to look beyond these statistics. There is no one data source that will tell you whether a particular course is right for you. The best way to get a clear idea of what university life is like is to speak to admissions offices, attend open days and read all the information that is available online.“