National Student Survey 2021: UK satisfaction hits new low

Survey was completed during major lockdowns in the UK when most students were studying online 

July 15, 2021
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Student satisfaction with the quality of UK university courses has dropped to its lowest-ever level amid the pandemic, while most learners do not agree that their institution has supported their mental well-being, according to the latest National Student Survey.

Although three-quarters of students taking the NSS this year said that they were still satisfied with course quality, the share was a drop of eight percentage points on last year. The previous lowest figure for overall satisfaction was 80.3 per cent in 2006, although the survey has undergone several changes since it was introduced in 2005.

The availability of learning resources saw a particularly steep fall in student satisfaction in 2021, with a 12 percentage-point drop in the agreement rate from 86 per cent to 74 per cent.

On individual questions in this area, 72 per cent agreed that IT facilities supported their learning well (down from 83 per cent); on library resources the figure was 75 per cent (down from 87 per cent); and on course-specific resources the figure was 74 per cent (down from 87 per cent).

The results for questions around teaching were better, but were still less positive than in 2020, when most surveys were completed before the pandemic had made a real impact on universities. This year the survey was completed between January and April, when most students were studying online because of lockdowns across the UK.

The 2021 NSS also included specific questions about students’ experience during the pandemic, which were answered by fewer people than the overall survey but revealed that just 42 per cent felt their mental well-being had been supported.

Meanwhile, fewer than half (48 per cent) said that they were content with the delivery of learning and teaching of their course during the pandemic.

The overall fall in satisfaction did not affect all types of student and provider, according to the Office for Students, which manages the NSS on behalf of all the UK’s higher education bodies.

Satisfaction rates for students who would normally have been studying through distance learning anyway – as opposed to those forced to by the pandemic – barely changed.

A small number of universities also maintained their satisfaction rates despite the pandemic. For instance, eight institutions increased their scores on learning resources by 1 percentage point or more.

For overall satisfaction with course quality, the University of St Andrews came top among universities with 93.3 per cent agreeing they were satisfied, a slight improvement on last year.

Leeds Arts University saw the biggest fall in percentage point terms, from 82.8 per cent to 63.8 per cent, followed by Brunel University London (from 77.6 per cent to 58.6 per cent) and Bournemouth University (80.2 per cent to 61.2 per cent).

Large research-intensive universities featured less among institutions with the biggest falls, although there were substantial drops for Newcastle University (down from 82.1 per cent to 69.5 per cent), the University of Birmingham (82.8 per cent to 71.9 per cent) and the University of Manchester, which has been the scene of some student unrest during the pandemic (down from 81.1 per cent to 71.4 per cent).

This year’s survey had 332,500 responses – a rate of 69 per cent – which was the same as last year and only slightly down on 2019 and 2018.

Due to a broader review of the NSS, which will lead to major changes in the survey next year, universities were not required to promote this year’s survey, which had prompted concerns about how the response rate would be affected.

The OfS said that if response rates this year “were below a certain threshold” by mid-March, institutions “were automatically included in a booster phase to send additional reminders to their non-responding students”.

Nicola Dandridge, chief executive of the OfS, said that while “institutions and lecturers worked hard to move courses online” during the pandemic, there were “important lessons from the different experiences seen by students at different universities and colleges”.

“Although these findings will inevitably reflect the unavoidable consequence of the pandemic, universities and colleges will want to consider their own results to ensure that the quality of their courses remains high, and that they can learn lessons from the pandemic which help support students’ academic experience this autumn and in the future,” she said.

“It is also a concern that only 42 per cent of students agree that their university or college took sufficient steps to support their mental well-being. Clearly, the circumstances last year were exceptional, but consideration should be given to what more can be done to ensure students are appropriately supported.”

Michelle Donelan, the universities minister, said: “I recognise that the past 18 months have been uniquely difficult for students, and we have set out clear expectations that the quality and quantity of tuition should be maintained.

“We have also been clear that students should be receiving good quality mental health support, and universities have had access to up to £256 million to use towards this.”

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