National Student Survey: leading institutions ‘relaxed’ while lower-ranked chase improvement

QAA study also suggests that academics see the NSS as a poor measure of teaching quality

November 12, 2015
Man laying in a tree
Source: Rex
What, me, worry? Some take care of students so the NSS ‘takes care of itself’

Leading universities are much more “relaxed” about their National Student Survey position than lower-ranked institutions, which “prioritise” their performance in the exercise, new research suggests.

A study commissioned by the Quality Assurance Agency (QAA) also found that, while NSS results are set to be a key metric in the proposed teaching excellence framework (TEF) outlined in the higher education Green Paper, institutional leaders did not feel that the NSS is an accurate measure of teaching quality.

In interviews conducted by the University of Kent, senior staff from institutions in the top quarter of national league tables said that, if they focus on improving the student experience, the NSS “takes care of itself”. One interviewee told the study that becoming obsessed with the NSS would “denature the academic experience for students”.

“We’re engaged in education, not customer satisfaction,” the interviewee said.

In contrast, interviewees from universities in the bottom quarter of the rankings “prioritise their NSS league table position and subsequently employ various tactics to promote the surveys”.

Interviewees described asking staff to write NSS action plans, showing students how to complete the survey, and asking colleagues to explain how responses had led to improvements.

Elizabeth Halford, head of research and intelligence at the QAA, said that the different approaches are a “feature of a diverse system”.

“Those institutions at the top of the league tables are much more secure in their reputation and probably feel that they offer a good student experience, and that speaks for itself in NSS scores,” Dr Halford said. “The ones in the bottom 25 per cent are probably more concerned about improving their reputation and addressing perceptions of ‘newer’ universities so they engage much more deliberately with the student cohort in trying to get NSS scores up.”

In the four interviews, universities said that the NSS had prompted them to focus on improving the student experience over the past decade, but most respondents were critical of the exercise’s methodology.

One interviewee said that it was not clear what “satisfaction” meant for a student, and another commented that it was a “very, very crude tool” by which to measure teaching quality – as is proposed in the TEF.

“It’s not necessarily a good reflection of the quality of the course or the quality of the learning because I think for many of these students, the quality of the learning will only become evident [several years] after they’ve done it,” the interviewee said.

However, a separate study, also published by the QAA on 12 November, suggests that the NSS may have some merit as a proxy for learning quality.

Analysis by the Open University of nearly 63,000 internal satisfaction survey responses found that learning design “had a strong and significant impact” on students’ perceptions.

“Learners who were more satisfied with the quality of teaching materials, assessment strategies and workload were significantly more satisfied with the overall learning experience,” the study says.

One leader who was interviewed for the Kent study said their institution had changed the personnel who taught a course in response to poor NSS results. But another said that they did not think their university had been “tough enough” with the group of staff who were “habitually underperforming” and needed “strong management action”.

chris.havergal@tesglobal.com

You've reached your article limit

Register to continue

Registration is free and only takes a moment. Once registered you can read a total of 6 articles each month, plus:

  • Sign up for the editor's highlights
  • Receive World University Rankings news first
  • Get job alerts, shortlist jobs and save job searches
  • Participate in reader discussions and post comments
Register

POSTSCRIPT:

Print headline: Elite institutions ‘relaxed’ over NSS while others push for improvement

Reader's comments (1)

The article omits to point out that this research was conducted by George Mindano of the Centre for the Study of Higher Education at the University of Kent.

Have your say

Log in or register to post comments

Most Commented

United Nations peace keeper

Understanding the unwritten rules of graduate study is vital if you want to get the most from your PhD supervision, say Kevin O'Gorman and Robert MacIntosh

David Parkins Christmas illustration (22 December 2016)

A Dickensian tale, set in today’s university

Eleanor Shakespeare illustration (5 January 2017)

Fixing problems in the academic job market by reducing the number of PhDs would homogenise the sector, argues Tom Cutterham

Houses of Parliament, Westminster, government

There really is no need for the Higher Education and Research Bill, says Anne Sheppard

poi, circus

Kate Riegle van West had to battle to bring her circus life and her academic life together