‘Radical’ review for NSS as ministers say it drives down standards

Move is part of package on red tape that also includes call for universities not to ‘feel pressured’ to join voluntary awards such as the Athena SWAN gender equality charter

September 10, 2020
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The UK’s National Student Survey is to undergo a “radical, root and branch” review as part of a series of measures announced by the Westminster government on cutting red tape in higher education.

In a policy paper on “reducing bureaucratic burden in research, innovation and higher education”, the government says that the annual survey had “exerted a downwards pressure on standards within our higher education system”.

“There is valid concern from some in the sector that good scores can more easily be achieved through dumbing down and spoon-feeding students, rather than pursuing high standards and embedding the subject knowledge and intellectual skills needed to succeed in the modern workplace,” the paper says.

“While government acknowledges that the NSS can be a helpful tool for providers and regulators, we believe its benefits are currently outweighed by these concerns.”

It adds that results “do not correlate well” with other “measures of quality” while “the extensive use of the NSS in league tables may cause some students to choose courses that are easy and entertaining, rather than robust and rigorous”.

The paper also says that the government “shares concerns” that the NSS “is open to gaming, with reports of some institutions deliberately encouraging their final-year students to answer positively with incentives or messaging about their future career prospects”. 

It says that it has asked the Office for Students to conclude a review into the survey – which already underwent an overhaul three years ago – by the end of the year, with the reformed survey able to “stand the test of time” and be able to provide reliable data “without depending on a universal annual sample”.

The NSS review was one of the stand-out announcements in a package of measures on bureaucracy published following a speech by universities minister Michelle Donelan to members of Universities UK.

In a foreword to the policy paper, government ministers say that they had “been concerned by a major growth in bureaucracy over recent decades, which became particularly apparent for the R&D system during the pandemic, much of which has added limited value or in some cases led to negative behaviours or consequences.

“Too often administrative activities are a distraction from the core purpose of research and education providers.”

Ms Donelan said that the announcements were “the first part of a long-term strategy aimed at creating a more streamlined, globally competitive higher education sector”.

As well as the NSS review, the measures also include a cut in the fees that English universities pay to the OfS and other sector bodies, immediate changes to data and other reporting requirements faced by institutions and details of how UK Research and Innovation is streamlining its grant funding processes.

There was also a call for universities to “not feel pressured” to take part in voluntary membership awards that seek to “support or validate an organisation’s performance in particular areas”.

“Such schemes can be helpful but can also generate large volumes of bureaucracy and result in a high cumulative cost of subscriptions,” the paper says.

“Where a university believes that membership of such schemes are genuinely the best way of addressing a matter, it is of course free to do so, but in general universities should feel confident in their ability to address such matters themselves and not feel pressured to take part in such initiatives to demonstrate their support for the cause the scheme addresses.”

This will include schemes such as Advance HE’s Athena SWAN Charter, which provides awards to university departments based on their performance on gender equality.

Specifically, the policy paper says that the government has “asked the OfS, UKRI and NIHR [National Institute for Health Research] to ensure that they place no weight upon the presence or absence of such markers or scheme memberships in any of their regulatory or funding activities”.

The NIHR has had a rule that universities applying for some of its funding require a silver Athena SWAN award, a condition that it confirmed today it was scrapping.

simon.baker@timeshighereducation.com

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Reader's comments (3)

About time too the NSS is a waste of money and the worst Universities for academic standards do best in it GO FIGURE tell all the students they are great, give them high grades and mickey mouse exams and you get a high NSS score. Try to educate them, challenge them, set them difficult exams and be fairly tough with marking the STUDENTS COMPLAIN and you get a low NSS. Any dimwit can work this out so the real question is why has the NSS score been allowed to influence UK academia so much ???
By the way good riddance to Athena Swan compulsory accreditation as well. It is a scheme to give you bronze first, then pay more to get the silver and then pay more to get the gold. Dreamed up by another load of bureaucrats as a jobs creation scheme.= for themselves.
The NSS is poorly constructed and asks the wrong questions. It is also given FAR too much weight by the government and even by universities themselves.

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