State school-leavers ‘more likely to rate university highly’

Researchers suggest state school-leavers might be ‘reluctant to perceive their educational investments as unsuccessful’

October 1, 2023
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State school-leavers are more likely to rate UK universities highly in student satisfaction surveys, according to new research.

The findings come after the controversial decision by the Office for Students (OfS) to remove the overall satisfaction question in the National Student Survey (NSS) for providers in England.

Researchers from the University of Stirling, Swansea University, the University of East Anglia and Technische Universität München, developed a multidimensional measure of student dissatisfaction to replace it.

To ensure a coherent approach to how student experience enhancement is achieved over time, they applied a “fuzzy” approach to take into account factors such as quality of teaching resource availability and opportunities for personal development.

Focusing on the overall satisfaction question, the researchers used NSS survey information and Higher Education Statistics Agency data to develop and test their index measurement.

In applying their methodology for the report, the researchers found that people who had graduated from state schools were more likely to give more positive satisfaction scores, they write in Studies in Higher Education.

Robert Webb, professor of banking and applied economics at Stirling and one of the report’s authors, told Times Higher Education that graduates originating from state schools might demonstrate a rational response to the considerable financial commitments they have undertaken.

“Given the substantial student debt often associated with higher education, these graduates may exhibit a reluctance to perceive their educational investments as unsuccessful,” he added.

“Conversely, students from private or grammar school backgrounds, having been acclimated to more intensive educational investments, may exhibit a more critical perspective when transitioning to higher education environments characterised by a heightened emphasis on independent study.”

The findings showed that top-tier NSS outcomes were not solely a product of exemplary teaching practices, said Professor Webb.

“They are also tied to the success of an institution’s widening participation initiatives,” he said.

“Universities that neglect or inadequately implement these strategies are likely to see diminished NSS scores.”

The authors also found that using non-permanent, teacher-focused contracts decreased dissatisfaction rates, which was another important factor for the sector as a whole.

Critics have warned that eliminating the overall satisfaction question from the NSS means students, particularly international ones, will find it difficult to compare universities UK-wide.

The researchers said adopting their new methodology approach could address concerns about student satisfaction surveys, and could be applied to student surveys across the world.

Professor Webb said the study could be a game-changer for the often-contentious issues of student satisfaction and league tables.

“The methodology may be ‘fuzzy’, but the result couldn’t be clearer,” he said.

“We have developed a robust, accessible and easily replicated index that not only provides a solution for the NSS but can be universally applied in other surveys around the world.”

However, the authors said their novel approach did not resolve their concerns over neoliberalism within the sector, regarding consumerism, massification and commodification of higher education and how student feedback is collected and utilised.

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