Including student satisfaction scores in Key Information Sets is unlikely to influence students' university choices but could heap additional pressure on academics to improve results, experts have warned.
Statistics from this year's National Student Survey are now available to students owing to the launch of the new-look Unistats website on September.
The revamped government-backed site allows students to compare courses across different universities using KIS, which take data from the annual student satisfaction survey as well as compare average graduate salaries, employment and dropout rates, and entry requirements.
This information - which is also available on university websites - was described by David Willetts, the universities and science minister, as "the final piece in the jigsaw" during a talk at Keele University on 13 September, as it will fill gaps in student knowledge while driving competition between institutions.
However, Adam Child, assistant registrar at Lancaster University, who has studied the impact of the NSS on institutional behaviour, said that an increased focus on the survey through the KIS could distract universities from more meaningful ways to improve courses. "If you put in place a measure and call it a 'performance indicator', people will feel the need to improve those scores even at the expense of other activities that will have a larger impact on student experience," he said.
He added that elements of the KIS were "not always the key issues on campus" and could distract institutions from engaging with students "on what really matters to them".
"It's unknown how KIS will [affect] students' decisions. But Unistats has been available for a few years [and] students haven't really looked at it," he said.
'Not hugely swayed'
Sami Benyahia, research director at Ipsos Mori, which polled around 287,000 students for the 2012 NSS, also said that students would not be hugely swayed by Unistats.
"I suspect it will be used with other information to inform a choice they have already made. It's a bit like someone who buys a car reading reviews [afterwards] to make them feel more comfortable about their decision," he said.
However, Mr Benyahia believed that institutions would look closely at the site to see how their rivals fared, particularly with regard to year-on-year departmental improvements. "Universities know who their competitors are and will not just look at overall satisfaction but every aspect of student experience," he said.
There is also widespread concern about the nature of the NSS, which many believe equates high student satisfaction scores with quality, and its effect on KIS.
"Students care a lot about content and what they are taught but this is not addressed in the KIS," said Duna Sabri, visiting research fellow in higher education policy at King's College London. "It is all about processes, satisfaction and treating students as customers."
Dr Sabri was also concerned that the NSS scores contained in the sets could be used to rank universities without considering the profiles of each institution's students.
For instance, arts and design students tend to be less satisfied than those doing science, while younger undergraduates and non-European Union students are more easily pleased than older students or those from ethnic minorities - skewing the results against post-1992 universities, which tend to have more diverse student bodies.
A more reliable reading of NSS data was whether institutions reached their benchmarks (see below), which are adjusted according to each student body's profile, she said.
"The way to read the NSS statistics properly needs to be embedded in public discourse," she added.
SATISFACTION BY SUBJECT
Top five institutions by % 'definitely' or 'mostly' satisfied with their course in law
Lancaster University: =98
University of Dundee: =97
Top five institutions by % 'definitely' or 'mostly' satisfied with their course in engineering and technology
Top five institutions by % 'definitely' or 'mostly' satisfied with their course in languages
Institutions with sample sizes of less than 50 excluded.
Open, happy faces: distance learner outclasses Oxbridge in NSS race
Undergraduates at The Open University are happiest with their courses, according to this year's National Student Survey.
The distance-learning institution grabs top spot in the 2012 student satisfaction poll once further education and specialist institutions are discounted, pushing the universities of Oxford, Cambridge and Buckingham into joint second place.
Ninety-three per cent of The Open University students say they are satisfied with the quality of their courses, a percentage point ahead of Oxbridge and Buckingham.
A cluster of mainly campus-based institutions, including the universities of Kent, Keele and Lancaster, ties for third spot with an overall satisfaction rating of 91 per cent.
Eleven of the 15 top-ranked universities in this year's survey are campus-based institutions. The University of Sheffield is the only major university based in a large urban centre that makes the top 15.
Higher education institutions in London fare less well.
King's College London (82 per cent rating), the University of West London (78 per cent) and the University of East London (77 per cent) achieve satisfaction ratings below their expected benchmark scores and do worse than comparable institutions outside the capital.
The 1994 Group, mainly comprised of small campus-based institutions, scores most highly among the mission groups, achieving 88.7 per cent on average, just ahead of the Russell Group of large research-intensive universities (87.4 per cent).
The business-focused University Alliance institutions average 83.4 per cent, closely followed by the specialist institutions represented by Guild HE (an average of 83 per cent). The post-1992 institutions in Million+ average 81 per cent.
But Roger Brown, professor of higher education policy at Liverpool Hope University, said NSS data provide crude and unreliable indicators of university teaching quality.
"Those universities which are well-resourced and campus-based tend to be those that do well in the NSS," he said. "The differences between institutions are also insignificant. As a guide to compare universities, I think it's almost useless."
The Open University's strong performance - it has been among the top three universities in the NSS for the past five years - is unsurprising, Professor Brown added.
"By definition, it's an entirely different model, which is much more student-driven," he said.
St Mary's University College Belfast, a college of Queen's University Belfast, achieves the highest overall score (98 per cent satisfaction), while several further education colleges have beaten Oxbridge.
This year's survey, which is taken by final-year students, shows further improvement in students' overall experience of university: 85 per cent of full-time university students in the UK say they are satisfied with their courses - up from 83 per cent.
Students are least satisfied with the marking of their work - an enduring complaint since the NSS was established in 2005.
Seventy per cent of students are happy with the assessment and feedback on their work, up from 68 per cent last year, while 86 per cent are happy with the teaching they have received, up from 84 per cent in 2011.