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Students to be asked about mental wellbeing services and free speech in National Student Survey shake-up

Students walking holding books

New questions are being introduced to the National Student Survey (NSS) in England to gauge students’ views on university and college mental wellbeing services and – in England – on freedom of expression.  

The changes, published today by the Office for Students (OfS), are part of a wider shake up of the survey which across the UK had over 300,000 student responses this year. The OfS manages the NSS on behalf of higher education funders and regulators in England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland. 

The changes will help ensure the survey continues to provide high quality information about students’ perceptions of their academic experience and the quality of the education they receive.  

The review of the NSS considered a range of issues that may affect students’ higher education experience, including support for their mental wellbeing, which may have an effect on a student’s attainment, engagement and continuation of study. 

The introduction of a question on mental wellbeing services across the UK, and freedom of expression in England, will capture views on these issues, and will follow refreshed core survey questions.

In England, the new freedom of expression question will test how comfortable students are to express themselves freely at university or college, at a time when there is a strong focus on free speech in higher education. Legislation currently being discussed in Parliament would strengthen the OfS’s powers to ensure universities are taking steps to promote free speech.

The key changes for all four UK nations are:

·The survey will change to direct questions with a four-point answer scale, which will ensure the questions are well understood and interpreted consistently by students

·A new question on mental wellbeing will be added 

·The NSS will be reviewed regularly, normally every four years with scope for additional reviews as appropriate

·From 2024-25 the period for students to respond to the survey will be shortened, to reduce data burden on universities.

The key additional changes in England are:

·A standalone question on ‘student satisfaction’ will be removed in England to provide a stronger focus on questions relating to aspects of quality. This question will be retained in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland where it is used for regulatory purposes.

·A new question on freedom of expression will be added for England.

The changes have been made following an extensive consultation process, with views from students and their representatives, and universities and colleges from across the UK, considered. The consultation follows detailed testing of a pilot questionnaire and engagement with the higher education sector to ensure the survey continues to support regulation and improvement of student information in all four UK nations.

Conor Ryan, chair of the UK Student Information Group and Director of External Relations at the OfS, said:

‘Students should feel able to influence their higher education and the NSS provides every student with the opportunity to tell us about their academic experience. With over 300,000 responses, it is an invaluable resource for universities, colleges, prospective students and regulators. 

‘For the NSS to remain fit for purpose, it must adapt to reflect changes in teaching and learning. After a thorough consultation, our changes will provide improved insight to help us regulate the quality of education and ensure the survey provides a consistent measure of students’ academic experience.

‘The inclusion of questions on mental wellbeing and freedom of expression in England will capture students’ views on wider factors that affect their academic experience. This data will enable us as the regulator and universities and colleges to identify effective policies as well as poor practice, and put measures in place to improve students’ overall education.

‘Changes including a move to more direct questions for improved interpretation, have been carefully considered, including concerns about comparability over time, and are necessary to future-proof the survey so it continues to accurately measure student perceptions of their academic experience.’ 

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