Duna Sabri, visiting research Fellow at the Centre for Public Policy Research, King's College London, said her studies of the National Student Survey showed that it was a poor indicator of quality but was still revered by university leaders.
Speaking at a conference in London, Dr Sabri said the nationwide survey of student views, launched in 2005, had gained a disproportionate influence. "I have never come across an instrument that has more function heaped upon it or importance imbued in it than the NSS," she said. "There is an almost religious belief in the power of the NSS to enhance experience."
Those universities that pride themselves on their strong performance in student satisfaction league tables are also misguided, she said, adding: "It is a weak basis to manage institutional identity."
Dr Sabri said a US-style survey on "student engagement" was preferable because it encouraged people to define themselves as active learners, rather than passive "consumers".
"One student told me, 'The NSS gave me an idea of what I should be getting.' It reinforces the idea that students should be getting something, instead of participating."
Pressure to perform well in the survey also had an adverse effect on academic staff, she said, with one lecturer saying: "It feels like the sword of Damocles hanging over us."
Questioning students about how satisfied they were with their studies six months after graduation, as is done in Australia, could produce more insightful results, she suggested.
Also speaking at the conference, organised by the Society for Research into Higher Education, Anthony Lewis, education and advocacy coordinator at University of Brighton's Students' Union, said: "As a snapshot, all you are getting with the NSS is a response from a student on a wet Wednesday two weeks before handing in."
Written comments and an institution's response to them were the most useful part of the NSS, not ticking boxes about satisfaction, he said.