The National Student Survey (NSS) is the largest survey of student experiences in the country. Each year thousands of students give feedback on their experiences of higher education – feedback that is valued and acted upon by universities and colleges across the UK.
Of course, this year was not like other years. The coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic has had a devastating impact – sparking unprecedented challenges for universities, colleges and their students. Universities needed to adapt their teaching, re-arrange assessments, and provide students with pastoral and academic support in exceptionally difficult circumstances. Students themselves faced significant disruption – particularly where their home environment may have been less conducive to study, or where the pandemic brought additional caring responsibilities or health worries.
Through this turbulent period, along with UK funders and regulatory bodies, we decided that it was important to keep the survey open. Students were able to respond to the NSS from 6 January until 30 April 2020 (the World Health Organisation declared the coronavirus outbreak a pandemic on 11 March 2020 and the UK entered 'lockdown' on 23 March 2020). While we recognised the pressures that universities were under, it was important that all students were given a chance to feed back on their experiences in higher education, no matter what those experiences were. Additionally, we expected the data to provide valuable insights for universities and colleges, even if the results were affected by the pandemic.
Alongside this, we committed to carefully analyse the impact of the pandemic before deciding whether to publish the survey results. We approached the decision to publish with an open mind, considering if any adjustments or qualifications would be needed to make sure the data publication was reliable and robust. We have published the full analysis today and dashboards of the results so that people can explore the data openly.
In brief, the analysis shows us that, while there were some variations across the data compared to previous years, there was no evidence that the results had been strongly impacted by the pandemic (similar to the impact the Higher Education Policy Institute (HEPI) found in their student experience survey). For example, while the response rate at 68.6 per cent was slightly lower than 71.9 per cent in 2019 and 70.1 per cent in 2018, it is hard to determine the extent to which the slight drop is due to the pandemic – the accumulation of responses in 2020 slowed after 11 March compared with 2019, but not compared with 2018. When comparing the 2019 results to 2020, there is a small negative shift in the agreement rate for some questions. However, similar shifts have also been observed in previous years.
While the survey invites students to reflect on their student experience as a whole – and it may be assumed that many responded on that basis – the pandemic was clearly on some students’ minds. Around 21 per cent of survey responses were taken after March 11, with 3,100 respondents specifically mentioning the pandemic in their written comments (1.6 per cent of all comments received). The comments made by students in the survey can be viewed by their respective university or colleges and we would expect them to be considered closely in how feedback is acted on.
Ensuring that students are empowered is crucial to delivering the high-quality academic experience that all students deserve. I would urge universities and colleges to carefully consider the feedback that students have given them this year. Listening closely to feedback, and acting on it where appropriate, will be particularly important this year as universities and colleges continue to adapt their provision in light of the pandemic. For our part, we will continue to develop the NSS, ensuring it remains relevant and useful for all.