For over 15 years the National Student Survey (NSS) has been an important indicator of student views. January 2023 sees the introduction of the new questionnaire.
This is an edited version of a speech given by Emma Maskell on 8 December 2022 at a Universities UK event on the future of teaching and learning in higher education.
About the NSS
The NSS gathers final year undergraduate students’ opinions of their course. This helps to:
- inform prospective students’ choices
- provide data that supports universities and colleges to improve the student experience
- support public accountability.
Every university in the UK takes part in the NSS, as do the many colleges that offer higher education courses. Response rates are consistently high at around 70 per cent. Around 300,000 students take part each year, making it one of the largest surveys of its kind in the UK.
The NSS is managed by the Office for Students (OfS) on behalf of the UK funding and regulatory bodies – the Department for the Economy (Northern Ireland), the Scottish Funding Council and the Higher Education Funding Council for Wales.
Since the introduction of the NSS we have seen significant and welcome improvements across a number of areas, including assessment and feedback. However, over its lifetime, learning and teaching practice has moved on – the student experience now looks very different. So it was time for a refresh.
Review and refresh
A large-scale review of the survey began in 2020. As part of the review, universities and colleges told us its greatest value was to help them make improvements to the student experience. They also valued the ability the survey provides to help them track their performance over time. But they and other stakeholders also said that the survey questions needed rethinking and reassessing.
A new questionnaire
2023 sees the introduction of a new NSS questionnaire. The biggest change is the move to direct questions, and a four-point scale so that the survey can provide more accurate feedback.
Other changes to the questionnaire include:
- improved wording to aid student understanding of the questions
- changes to questions that asked about two different things at once (double-barrelled questions)
- adding new questions on existing concepts
- updating questions to reflect current practice and changes to the regulation of quality in England.
For the first time there will be some differences to the questionnaire across each of the UK nations, including the removal of the final ‘overall satisfaction’ question for England. However, it will still be possible to benchmark performance across the other 25 core questions on various aspects of the student academic experience.
You can view the new questionnaire on our website.
Speaking the same language
Having previously overseen the NSS on an institutional level when I worked in universities and colleges, I know how important it is for both staff and students to have a shared understanding of the survey’s questions and concepts. This is particularly true when using the results to make improvements to the student experience. We have published the outcomes from our cognitive testing and research so that providers can better understand what their students are thinking about when responding to the survey.
Any change to the NSS questions inevitably means an interruption in trend data. But we hope that the improvements made to the questions will be worth the short-term disruption.
We have committed to reviewing the survey every four years. It’s important to emphasise this does not mean the questions will change every four years – we understand the value of a stable survey over time. However, we think it will be important to look at them again to ensure they are still providing all of us with the information we need to benefit students.
Help us, help you
We know universities and colleges put a lot of work and effort into the analysis and distribution of results within their institution. Over the coming year we will be looking to make improvements to the way we share NSS data with them. Helping providers to analyse this data and draw meaningful conclusions from it will help inform improvements to the student experience in 2024 and beyond.
Providers and others with an interest in the NSS can also have your say on the presentation of 2023 results in a technical consultation planned for spring 2023.
The NSS is an incredibly powerful tool to help understand where improvements can be made to students’ academic experience. But it's one part of a bigger picture – of listening to, engaging and working in partnership with students to understand their experience and bring about positive change'.