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 (@OfficeStudents).

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.”  

NUS Vice President (Higher Education), Hillary Gyebi-Ababio said:

“NUS welcomes this shake-up of the NSS, and hope that the changes will be used to improve the value of the survey for students. It is very positive that steps will be taken to overhaul the questions asked and to work with students and students’ unions to report any attempts to influence the survey.”

“We look forward to engaging with the next stage of the review to ensure that students’ voices are put at the heart of the survey.”

The review included:  

  • an opinion poll of 1022 students conducted by Youthsight, which included applicants, undergraduates and recent graduates 
  • an open consultation which had 1185 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. 

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