A plethora of instruments are used to measure and try to discover what students think of their experiences at UK universities.
Internally, students are asked for feedback on teaching and learning at the end of modules as part of quality assurance processes, and most universities run a range of internal academic surveys for non-final-year students as well as service-level surveys for IT support, library provision, disability support and more.
Ideally, there is an effective ‘feedback loop’ so that students can be reassured that the ‘You said, we did’ commitment is completed. But universities are complex places: loops may be ‘floopy’ and as fatigued as the students who are constantly asked for feedback and sometimes stop answering.
The National Student Survey (NSS) has been run for final-year students by UK universities on behalf of funding and regulatory bodies since 2005 with the aim of creating feedback for higher education providers, as well as information for prospective students in becoming ‘intelligent customers’ of higher education. NSS scores are a key part of national and international profiles for universities in terms of league table performance and Discover Uni (formerly Unistats), as well as contributing to the Teaching Excellence Framework (TEF). Survey results have thus become important feedback for individual universities, but arguably more important for reputation, marketing and recruitment.
The Higher Education Policy Institute (HEPI)/Advance HE Student Academic Experience Survey is the slightly younger sibling of the NSS, launching in 2006, with a panel of 47,000+ students from all years of study recruited by YouthSight. A sample group from the panel responds each year to questions on all aspects of the student experience. Survey results take the temperature of student opinion and thought in any year and provide insight for the sector rather than individual providers. For the first time in 2021, students were asked an open question about the one thing that would improve the quality of their academic experience.
Importantly, HEPI has placed a new focus on how students feel about belonging to their university. ‘Belonging’ has been a longstanding subject of academic enquiry and understood as an important aspect of students’ decisions to stay the course at their university or leave. Hence, there is much attention paid to this in the sector, especially in the area of widening participation and transition work with groups of new students. It is important to get this right: if students feel a sense of belonging, not only will they stay and progress, but they will also form better connections, have a greater sense of wellbeing and remain part of their university alumni ‘family’. Clearly, this will be different for different students, and HEPI 2021 published results by sexual orientation (using the term ‘LGB+’) and ethnicity (using the term ‘BAME’).
The NSS questions have been tweaked over time and optional question banks added, but the important ‘overall satisfaction’ question has remained the same. The answer to this statement, ‘Overall, I am satisfied with the quality of my course’ has become the proxy for the success of a university and the percentage results become headlines on university websites and marketing copy. Anything under 80% is seen to be below sector par, with the big hitters scoring 95%+. The headline scores are considered to represent the overall view of the student body. But the thinking that goes into the answer to this question when students consider the definitely/mostly agree/disagree or neither answers must be more varied and nuanced than the Likert scale allows, and the answers certainly depend on the lived experiences of different and diverse groups of students within a student population.
Out there in the sector, students and sector organisations are doing their own research and finding out what students think about ‘Living Black at University’, ‘Perceptions of Belonging and Inclusion’ and ‘Going Back is not a Choice’ and giving the sector not just food for thought, but providing a strong call to action to make significant changes to the way that the academic and living experiences of students are considered and organised.
Students are cast as consumers by the current fee and regulatory structure of UK higher education launched by the 2003 White Paper. The debate about the impact of the corporate nature of higher education on students and academic staff continues, as does the question of how to best gather meaningful and nuanced feedback from a diverse student population.
The NSS is under review by the Office for Students. Phase 2 is underway now that Phase 1 is complete. It is here to stay as the most high-profile student survey with the broadest reach. It is likely to stay woven into the regulatory regime of UK higher education, as part of the ‘deal’ is that universities are accountable to their students as well as to their funders and regulators. As much as the intention is to capture the diversity of voices that make up student populations, the survey will not provide the whole picture for universities.
Getting the balance right between the internal ways in which universities try to ask students how things are going for them and how they can be improved, how they respond to NSS results and other external surveys/research, and how they form relationships with their students and work with student unions/guilds, is crucial.
Feedback is a complex picture that cannot be easily represented by percentage headlines, and it needs to be supplemented by meaningful engagement with students, especially those whose voices have been traditionally quiet but are now beginning to be heard.
Sara Doherty is a Consulting Fellow at Halpin. Halpin has a wealth of experience in working with universities to enhance the student experience, including in the areas of how to improve engagement and inclusivity. Working with an external partner is often what is needed to test and challenge existing ways of working and produce different results. Contact us to find out more about how Halpin and our team of HE experts can support you.