Last week, Ministers from the Department for Education (DfE) and the Department for Business Energy and Innovation (BEIS) announced measures aiming to reduce bureaucratic burden in research, innovation and higher education.

This included a ‘radical root and branch’ review of the National Student Survey (NSS), run by the Office for Students. The policy briefing raises questions about both the form and the content of the NSS. In its current form it has been criticised for its cost and time-consuming bureaucracy and it has raised questions about the impact it has on student choice as a value indicator.

How is the NSS currently used and what are the issues?

The purpose of the NSS is to enhance the student academic experience within HE institutions and ensure public accountability, but it is more widely used to inform prospective student choice. Over the years it has attracted criticism from various stakeholders for a number of reasons.

In 2014 the HEFCE review of the NSS raised concerns about the NSS’s efficiency and ability to deliver the afore-mentioned objectives. Among the issues the Government’s policy paper highlights is the risk of the NSS scores being open to “gaming.”  The paper identifies institutions approaching their final year students with career promises in order to score higher and students choosing “easy and entertaining” courses rather than encouraging courses that are more “robust and rigorous”. In 2017, there were calls to boycott the NSS by the National Union of Students and even calls to abolish the NSS altogether.

Although the NSS asks about learning opportunities and academic support among other aspects of the student experience, it is the overarching question about “overall satisfaction” that gains the most publicity and therefore has the biggest impact on prospective student choice. A recent study shows that other metrics in the NSS such as Learning Resources, Assessment & Feedback and Personal Development do not automatically correlate with the rate of overall satisfaction. The NSS statistics must also not be confused with other measurements within the UK HE sector. A course scoring high in the NSS may score very low on drop-out rates or graduate progression to highly skilled employment.

If the aim is for the NSS to inform prospective student choice we need to think about what we want these students to base their choice on. Reviewing and revising the NSS is an excellent opportunity to think about what we want the future work force to consider when taking one of their initial and most important career steps.

How should it be used and what are the possibilities?

A survey asking about the student experience is valuable in many ways and can be an excellent opportunity to assess the impact of higher education. Hence, what do we want the NSS to indicate and our future student to consider when choosing a university?

ONS figures have suggested that the impact of Covid-19 and the ensuing recession will have a big impact on graduate employability. And these impacts are likely to be felt for years to come. If used in the right way, the NSS results could play a vital role in shaping university behaviour and strategy, ensuring graduates are skilled and meeting the demands of industry, whilst filling national skills gaps.

It is no secret that universities are competitive. Therefore, if the survey is asking the right questions of their students, universities will respond accordingly. The Government’s promise to review the NSS presents a host of opportunities that can focus universities on preparing their graduates for the world of work. These could include questions about:

  • ‘How prepared are you for entering the world of work?’
  • ‘Has your university experience prepared you to enter high skilled employment?’
  • ‘Do you know what career path you will be taking when you leave university?’
  • ‘Do you know what skills employers are looking for when you leave university?’

Regardless of its many problems and criticism from the HE sector, it is a survey that is taken seriously by many HE providers as well as students. It does therefore have the possibility to influence and change the behaviour of universities, a possibility and opportunity that should not be missed out on.

A focus on preparations for entering the world of work and the possibilities to find a suitable high skilled employment after graduation would not only produce valuable data on the skills environment. It would  also let future students make choices based on statistics that are more relevant for their future careers, help universities be more responsive to the UK’s changing economy and provide the fundamental skills necessary for the UK to achieve its goals of remaining a highly innovative and prosperous country.