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”.