Major shake-up for National Student Survey following review

Major changes in the National Student Survey (NSS) will be introduced over the next two years following the first phase of a review of the survey conducted by the Office for Students.

students in library around a laptop

The survey – which is completed by over 300,000 students across the UK each year – offers final year undergraduates the opportunity to have their say about the quality of their student academic experience. 

The NSS is used by prospective students to inform them about what other students think about courses, to help universities and colleges improve the student academic experience and by regulators to gain the student perspective on that higher education experience. 

The review of the NSS was commissioned by England’s Universities Minister, Michelle Donelan. The OfS chair Sir Michael Barber and the Secretary of State for Education, Gavin Williamson MP, agreed the terms of reference in September 2020 of a radical review to address concerns that the survey could be adversely impacting on quality and standards and creating significant unnecessary bureaucracy for universities and colleges. 

Following extensive consultations and discussion with students, university and college leaders, academics and other stakeholders, the OfS and partner bodies in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland have agreed recommendations designed to improve the value of the survey for improved quality, reduce bureaucracy, ensure data is used properly and strengthen protections against undue influence. These are to: 

  • consult on a radical overhaul of the questions asked in the survey to ensure they fully support the needs of students, universities and regulators 
  • drop any references to student ‘satisfaction’ in the survey to reinforce its real purpose, whilst finding new ways to measure students’ overall assessment of their academic experience 
  • continue to publish the survey at a level that is statistically robust, while reviewing the reporting thresholds used to decide on publication 
  • provide improved guidance to universities, colleges and student unions on the responsible statistical use of NSS results 
  • help reduce needless duplication and burden in universities and colleges by providing better analysis of results from a central website 
  • increase awareness among students and students’ unions of how to report any attempts by lecturers to influence student responses in ways that do not reflect their experience. 

The review seriously considered a range of alternatives to an annual census, but the strong view of most of those consulted was that an annual census remained the best option, with a radical review of the questions. Respondents felt that this offered the most robust source of data and ensured student feedback remained up to date, including in years of exceptional challenges. The OfS and the other NSS funders came to the same conclusion. 

Over the next few months, in phase two of the NSS consultation, there will be extensive discussion with students, universities, colleges and regulators about new questions for the survey, including how best to reflect students’ overall assessment of their experience. 

New questions will be tested alongside the 2022 NSS and are likely to replace the existing questions. 

Sir Michael Barber, chair of the OfS, said: 

'The National Student Survey provides universities and colleges and prospective students with the opportunity to hear the voice of students towards the end of their courses. It is also a useful tool for regulators to hear from students about their experience of higher education. 

'Because of its importance, it is right that we looked carefully at its wider impacts on quality and standards and that we are taking forward the robust recommendations of the review group to ensure that the NSS improves its usefulness and reduces needless burden for those who use it, while continuing to be a valuable voice for students.' 

The review included:  

  • an opinion poll of 1,022 students conducted by Youthsight, which included applicants, undergraduates and recent graduates 
  • an open consultation which had 1,185 responses, mainly from university leaders and academics  
  • 20 roundtables with students, university leaders and academics, and interviews with stakeholders.  

A review group representing different voices in the sector provided advice and views on the review and its recommendations. 

Notes 

  1. The National Student Survey (NSS) is commissioned by the OfS on behalf of the UK funding and regulatory bodies - the Higher Education Funding Council for Wales (HEFCW), the Department for Economy Northern Ireland (DfENI), and the Scottish Funding Council (SFC). It is undertaken independently by IPSOS Mori, and gathers students' opinions on the quality of their courses which helps to:
    -inform prospective students’ choices
    -provide data that supports universities and colleges to improve the student academic experience
    -support public accountability.
  2. Every university in the UK takes part in the NSS, as do many colleges. Response rates are consistently high, with 311,432 students (69 per cent of those eligible) completing the survey in 2020.
  3. The survey consists of core questions and banks of optional questions. For the 2021 survey, students have been asked six questions about the impact of the coronavirus pandemic on their studies.
  4. More information on the review, including its terms of reference and details of the approach the OfS has taken to the review, is available on our NSS pages.
  5. We've published today the NSS review phase one report.

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