Student satisfaction scores at “increasingly unwieldy” Russell Group universities are significantly lower on average than those achieved by smaller institutions, new results show.
According to this year’s National Student Survey, published on 12 August, 86 per cent of final-year undergraduates say they are satisfied with their course, up from 85 per cent in 2013. But the universities scoring the highest in the poll, which surveyed about 321,000 students this year, tend to be medium-sized research-intensives, rather than the larger elite universities in the Russell Group.
Of the 20 universities who scored 90 per cent or more in overall satisfaction, nine are campus universities outside the Russell Group compared with six within the mission group.
Edward Acton, vice-chancellor of the University of East Anglia, which is rated joint fourth in this year’s NSS, believed his institution’s strong performance reflected the “limited, personal scale of our undergraduate intake”.
“[This] is just what the increasingly unwieldy big civics of the Russell Group struggle to provide,” said Professor Acton, who said it was “particularly striking…the way we outperform the Russell Group”.
“We are delighted that year after year UEA elicits more student enthusiasm than pretty well anywhere in the country,” he added.
Nick Foskett, vice-chancellor of Keele, also argued that the smaller universities offered a better academic experience than the larger universities because of a greater sense of community.
“As a smaller university, there is a much greater connection between staff and students, which helps to create a better working environment,” said Professor Foskett.
He believed the Russell Group was “very effective at promoting the profile of its members” and “held itself out as the gold standard”, despite its lower student satisfaction scores than campus universities.
A Russell Group spokesman said that this year’s NSS “shows again that student satisfaction is higher, on average, at Russell Group universities than the rest of the sector”.
“This is because our universities offer students the chance to engage in research processes, work with leading experts in their field, have access to first-rate libraries and facilities, and be part of a highly motivated and talented peer group,” he added.
The lower-than-average scores achieved by some members of the Russell Group are particularly evident when ratings are adjusted to reflect student characteristics, such as age, sex, ethnicity and subject studied.
Students studying science, technology, engineering and maths subjects tend to be happier with the course than those doing arts or humanities, and younger, full-time students are more satisfied in general than older, part-time students.
To avoid “misleading” comparisons between institutions with different subject and student profiles, more attention should be paid to a university’s performance against a benchmark set by the Higher Education Funding Council for England, a review of the NSS commissioned by the funding council and published last month says.
From this viewpoint, only a handful of Russell Group universities, whose student bodies are predominantly young, manage to do better than the “par” score set by Hefce.
Of the 86 institutions that do better than their benchmark score, only 10 are Russell Group universities, and just the University of Exeter and Newcastle University exceed their par score by four percentage points or more. This compares with 36 other institutions that did better than their benchmark score by this margin.
The group’s spokesman said two-thirds of Russell Group universities met or exceeded their Hefce benchmarks.
Adam Child, senior policy and strategy officer at Lancaster University, who has studied the NSS, said comparisons against benchmarks were “much better than just comparing the raw scores”.
“The recent review of the NSS made this clear,” said Mr Child.
“Some subjects, such as STEM subjects, naturally gain better scores than others and the review said this should be more in the public domain as results are controlled by subject,” he added.
Mr Child suggested the review’s proposed reform of the NSS was welcomed because, in the survey’s current format, sector-wide results are unlikely to go much higher than this year’s 86 per cent approval rating. “We are maybe approaching the ceiling for results and they might not get any higher as there is always going to be a rump of students who are dissatisfied,” he said.
Another significant result in this year’s NSS belonged to the University of Law, which became the first for-profit private provider to enter the NSS. With an overall satisfaction score of 92 per cent, the private equity-owned university finished ahead of almost all universities, including Oxford and Cambridge, which both scored 91 per cent.
Its provost and chief executive officer John Latham said the number of students who returned responses was low because they were enrolled on the university’s first two-year undergraduate course, which was launched in 2012.
But the strong results were not dissimilar to its satisfaction scores registered by its mainly postgraduate student body, said Mr Latham.
The results could be credited to the university’s “low class sizes and student-to-staff ratios, high numbers of contact hours and strong focus on employability”, he said.
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