National Student Survey 2020: satisfaction dips amid pandemic

Office for Students says results are ‘remarkably positive’ for cohort of students affected by Covid-19 and industrial action

July 15, 2020
Source: iStock

The overall satisfaction of students with their university in the UK has dipped slightly following a year of “unprecedented challenges”, according to the latest results of the National Student Survey.

About 310,000 students at 396 universities, colleges and other providers completed the 2020 NSS, down from about 330,000 last year. About 21.2 per cent of the responses came after 11 March, the date when the World Health Organisation declared the coronavirus outbreak a pandemic.

The overall satisfaction of students with their course slipped to 83 per cent in 2020, down from 84 per cent in 2019. The agreement to most questions either dropped or stayed the same this year, which also saw industrial action across many campuses.

In 2020, 67 per cent of full-time students in England agreed that their course was well organised and running smoothly, compared with 70 per cent in 2019 and 69 per cent in 2018.

This year, 75 per cent of full-time students in England agreed that changes in the course or teaching had been communicated effectively, down from 77 per cent in 2019.

England’s regulator, the Office for Students, said that although these changes could not be clearly attributed to the pandemic, given similar variations observed in previous years, organisation and communication were particularly important areas to focus on as universities continued to adapt to the changes brought by coronavirus.

The OfS said it had analysed this year’s data to determine whether the pandemic had affected the survey’s reliability or the results but had concluded “that the results could be published in full, without any exceptional adjustment to account for the impact of the pandemic”. For example, the accumulation of responses in 2020 slowed after 11 March compared with 2019, but not compared with 2018.

The NSS is provided to all students in their final year of university and is supposed to represent a reflection on their overall experience.

Alongside the pandemic, this cohort has experienced significant disruption owing to industrial action at a number of UK institutions. In 2020, staff at 74 institutions went on strike for 14 days, which was preceded by eight days of strikes at the end of 2019 and a 14-day pensions strike in 2018-19.

The response rate was also down this year to 68.6 per cent, from 71.9 per cent in 2019 and 70.1 per cent in 2018, a return to the level of 2017, when students boycotted the survey in protest against the teaching excellence framework, which uses NSS metrics.

The number of providers with publishable results – those whose response rate was over 50 per cent – also dropped this year, from 96.1 per cent last year to 93.3 per cent this year.

The UK’s most prestigious institutions, the universities of Oxford and Cambridge, still failed to feature.

This year, the University of St Andrews’ overall satisfaction declined from 95 per cent to 92 per cent, but it remained the highest scoring among the larger institutions.

Other universities took a larger hit, including the University of Central Lancashire, which fell by 7 percentage points to 76 per cent, and De Montfort University, which dropped by 5 percentage points to 77 per cent. The University of Essex and the University of Bedfordshire both slipped by 5 percentage points to 82 per cent and 74 per cent, respectively.

A number of Russell Group institutions saw their overall scores drop by 3 percentage points: the universities of Leeds (to 82 per cent), York (to 85 per cent), Bristol (to 81 per cent) and Newcastle (to 82 per cent).

There was a big increase for the London School of Economics this year, whose overall satisfaction rate rose from 78 per cent in 2019 to 84 per cent in 2020 – this was following on from a rise from 71 per cent in 2018.

Other institutions that increased their satisfaction included Durham University, which rose 2 percentage points to 87 per cent. After a big drop last year, Leeds Trinity University climbed 5 percentage points to 81 per cent this year. The University of Stirling also rose by 5 percentage points to 87 per cent.

Nicola Dandridge, chief executive of the Office for Students, said it had been a year of “unprecedented challenges” for universities and students.

“Notwithstanding the impact of both industrial action and the coronavirus pandemic on the students responding to the survey, the results remain remarkably positive,” she said.

“However, for several years, students have reported comparatively lower satisfaction with the organisation and management of their courses, and how effectively changes are communicated.

“Now more than ever, the survey results demonstrate how important it is for universities to communicate changes effectively, run courses as smoothly as possible, and listen carefully to student feedback. This is even more important in the context of the coronavirus pandemic – hence the guidance that we recently published stating that students should be given timely information about how the delivery of their courses will change next year.”

UCU general secretary Jo Grady said that “while the National Student Survey has many flaws, the findings do indicate that the unprecedented events of the past academic year have not shaken students’ appreciation for the work staff do”.

Alistair Jarvis, chief executive of Universities UK, said UUK was “extremely proud of our students and of the news that satisfaction levels remain high across the UK. Universities and their staff work extremely hard to make sure students benefit from every aspect of their higher education, and these latest results reflect their efforts.”

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