National Student Survey – Key information may not unlock choice (UK)

By Jack Grove, Elizabeth Gibney

NSS scores’ inclusion in KIS could offer perverse incentives. Jack Grove and Elizabeth Gibney write.

Including student satisfaction scores in Key Information Sets is unlikely to influence students’ university choices but could heap additional pressure on academics to improve results, experts have warned. Statistics from this year’s National Student Survey are now available to students owing to the launch of the new-look Unistats website on 27 September. The revamped government-backed site allows students to compare courses across different universities using KIS, which take data from the annual student satisfaction survey as well as compare average graduate salaries, employment and dropout rates, and entry requirements.

This information – which is also available on university websites – was described by David Willetts, the universities and science minister, as “the final piece in the jigsaw” during a talk at Keele University on 13 September, as it will fill gaps in student knowledge while driving competition between institutions.
However, Adam Child, assistant registrar at Lancaster University, who has studied the impact of the NSS on institutional behaviour, said that an increased focus on the survey through the KIS could distract universities from more meaningful ways to improve courses. “If you put in place a measure and call it a ‘performance indicator’, people will feel the need to improve those scores even at the expense of other activities that will have a larger impact on student experience,” he said.
He added that elements of the KIS were “not always the key issues on campus” and could distract institutions from engaging with students “on what really matters to them”. “It’s unknown how KIS will [affect] students’ decisions. But Unistats has been available for a few years [and] students haven’t really looked at it,” he said.

‘Not hugely swayed’
Sami Benyahia, research director at Ipsos Mori, which polled around 287,000 students for the 2012 NSS, also said that students would not be hugely swayed by Unistats. “I suspect it will be used with other information to inform a choice they have already made. It’s a bit like someone who buys a car reading reviews [afterwards] to make them feel more comfortable about their decision,” he said.

However, Mr Benyahia believed that institutions would look closely at the site to see how their rivals fared, particularly with regard to year-on-year departmental improvements. “Universities know who their competitors are and will not just look at overall satisfaction but every aspect of student experience,” he said.
There is also widespread concern about the nature of the NSS, which many believe equates high student satisfaction scores with quality, and its effect on KIS. “Students care a lot about content and what they are taught but this is not addressed in the KIS,” said Duna Sabri, visiting research fellow in higher education policy at King’s College London. “It is all about processes, satisfaction and treating students as customers.” Dr Sabri was also concerned that the NSS scores contained in the sets could be used to rank universities without considering the profiles of each institution’s students.

For instance, arts and design students tend to be less satisfied than those doing science, while younger undergraduates and non-European Union students are more easily pleased than older students or those from ethnic minorities – skewing the results against post-1992 universities, which tend to have more diverse student bodies. A more reliable reading of NSS data was whether institutions reached their benchmarks (see below), which are adjusted according to each student body’s profile, she said. “The way to read the NSS statistics properly needs to be embedded in public discourse,” she added.


Top five institutions by % ‘definitely’ or ‘mostly’ satisfied with their course in law
University of Nottingham: =98
Lancaster University: =98
University of Greenwich: =97
University of Sunderland: =97
University of Dundee: =97

Top five institutions by % ‘definitely’ or ‘mostly’ satisfied with their course in engineering and technology
University of Kent: 97
Heriot-Watt University: 95
University of Surrey: 94
University of Greenwich: =93
University of Sheffield: =93

Top five institutions by % ‘definitely’ or ‘mostly’ satisfied with their course in languages
University of Buckingham: 97
Loughborough University: =96
University of Southampton: =96
University of Cambridge: =96
Teesside University: 95
Institutions with sample sizes of less than 50 excluded.

Source: Times Higher Education