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How to do well in the National Student Survey (NSS)

Survey (PR)

5 March 2018

  • ‘Teaching quality’ and ‘organisation and management’ are the best predictors for overall satisfaction in the National Student Survey, according to data from 2.3 million full-time students
  • NSS criticised for not taking into account value for money despite growing influence of market forces
  • Full paper available here.

The key to success in the National Student Survey (NSS) has been revealed in a new study.

The research, using data from 2.3 million full-time students collected between 2007 and 2016, found the best predictors of overall satisfaction were ‘teaching quality’ and ‘organisation and management’, with ‘assessment and feedback’ having relatively weak predictive ability despite the sector’s efforts to improve on this metric.

The tripling of tuition fees in 2012 for students in England was found to have had no identifiable negative effect, with student satisfaction steadily improving throughout the decade.

The authors, academics from Aston University and University of Gibraltar, suggest this reflects the NSS’s insensitivity to major changes in the cost of going to university, and that the concept of student satisfaction should be widened to include perceived value for money.

Adrian Burgess, Professor of Psychology at Aston University and lead author, said: “The message is simple: the most efficient way to improve your satisfaction ratings is to focus your efforts on those areas that students value most: ‘organisation and management’ and ‘teaching quality’.

“Unfortunately, there is a slight problem here. In the most recent NSS in our survey, the average percentage agreement for one of the ‘teaching quality’ questions, ‘Staff are good at explaining things’, was over 90%, leaving very little room for improvement.

“There is much more scope for improvement in ‘organisation and management’, where the question ‘The course is well organised and running smoothly’ peaked at a modest 78% agreement, and you would do well to focus your main effort here.”

The study found the NSS to be a ‘robust and stable tool’ for measuring student satisfaction, and praised its improved ability to offer better discrimination between courses at different universities.

There was criticism, however, on the failure of the NSS to address student perception of value-for-money, despite the increasing influence of market forces on HE.

“The NSS, in its current form, ignores what is probably the greatest source of student dissatisfaction with higher education: the cost,” Professor Burgess said.

“The last election showed all too clearly that tuition fees have become a hot political issue, and has led to Theresa May’s recent announcement of an independent review of student finance. Yet over the last 10 years, the NSS has completely failed to track changes in satisfaction related to costs.”

The research found that in 2007 Scottish students reported substantially higher rates of overall satisfaction (87.4%) than students from England (81.8%). Yet the introduction of full-cost tuition fees in England in 2012, far from exacerbating this difference, actually saw the gap close with English students becoming increasingly satisfied over the decade. Welsh and Northern Irish students also showed improved satisfaction.

“Whether this seemingly perverse response to the tripling of tuition fees in England shows that higher education has become a Veblan good (‘My education is really expensive so it must be really good’) or is a case of mass collective cogitative dissonance (‘I paid a lot for it so I must really value it’), we can’t say,” he added.

“More probably, the NSS failed to track changes in satisfaction related to cost because it didn’t ask about it and it’s likely that most universities consider that a good thing.

“But the issue won’t simply go away by ignoring it, and it might be better for all concerned to honestly address a core area of student dissatisfaction by adding an item on value for money to the NSS.”

Below are the key results:

Helping universities improve

There has been a remarkable increase in NSS satisfaction scores over the decade 2007–2016, with nearly every question seeing increases each year. The items that received the lowest scores in 2007 (notably questions 7, 8, 9, and 12 relating to feedback and advice) showed the greatest improvement.

The rate of increase, however, appears to be slowing, suggesting that NSS scores for many items, including ‘overall satisfaction’ are nearing their ceiling.

NSS Graph 1 (PR)
Figure 1: Mean satisfaction measured using NSS from 2007 to 2016 (averaged over items 1 to 22) in the UK national cohort

Helping prospective students choose

One of the main objectives of the NSS is to provide prospective students with information to help them choose the best university for the subject they wish to study, so a relatively high proportion of the variability in NSS ratings should reflect consistent differences between the same subject groups at different universities.

In fact, not only were systematic differences between university subject groups the single largest source of variance in the NSS ratings that could be accounted for but their importance increased over the decade. This confirms that the NSS is successful in achieving one of its primary purposes. 

Predictors of overall student satisfaction

The study found the strongest predictors of ‘overall satisfaction’ were ‘organisation and management’ and ‘teaching quality’.

 

2007

2008

2009

2010

2011

2012

2013

2014

2015

2016

All Years

Teaching

0.44

0.43

0.45

0.48

0.49

0.49

0.49

0.51

0.46

0.49

0.49

Assessment & Feedback

0.19

0.19

0.18

0.18

0.19

0.16

0.17

0.20

0.23

0.20

0.18

Academic Support

0.27

0.25

0.23

0.21

0.20

0.21

0.23

0.20

0.17

0.17

0.18

Organisation & Management

0.55

0.58

0.53

0.52

0.52

0.49

0.49

0.49

0.47

0.48

0.52

Learning Resources

0.13

0.12

0.18

0.15

0.15

0.15

0.13

0.11

0.14

0.13

0.14

Personal Development

0.25

0.29

0.29

0.31

0.33

0.31

0.30

0.31

0.29

0.30

0.30

 Table 1: NSS predictors of 'overall satisfaction' showing the standardised Beta coefficients for each of the NSS subscales for each year from 2007 to 2016.

In 2007-2016, the ability to predict ‘overall satisfaction’ from ‘teaching quality’ tended to increase, while ‘organisation and management’ and ‘academic support’ showed small decreases. The other factors showed no consistent direction of change.

‘Assessment and feedback’ was a relatively poor predictor; its contribution was weaker than that of ‘personal development’.

The effects of increases in tuition fees

For students attending Scottish universities, ‘overall satisfaction’ has remained steady across the decade which is what might be expected given that Scottish students have experienced no change in tuition fees during this period.

However, ‘overall satisfaction’ for students attending English universities, which started well below Scottish levels in 2007, increased steadily thereafter and achieved parity from 2013 onwards. Most strikingly, the tripling of fees in 2012 appears to have had no effect on ‘overall satisfaction’ at all.

Students in Wales and Northern Ireland showed a similar trend to those in England but started off the decade with slightly higher levels of ‘overall satisfaction’.

NSS Graph 2 (PR)
Figure 2: Mean 'Overall Satisfaction' for the devolved national undergraduate cohorts (England, high tuition fees; Wales and Northern Ireland Intermediate tuition fees; Scotland free tuition). Error bars indicate ±1 standard errors from the mean

ENDS

Notes to the editor

Additional information

  • Although the NSS includes many small HE providers, in this study only the largest 100 HE providers based on student sample size were considered. These universities, the ‘Big 100’, included 90.3% of eligible students during the period of interest.
  • To determine which NSS questions contributed most to ‘overall satisfaction’, the analysis reduced the 21 questions into six scores mapped onto the six NSS subscales (‘teaching quality’, ‘assessment and feedback’, ‘academic support’, ‘organisation and management’, ‘learning resources’, and ‘personal development’).
  • The authors of the report are Adrian Burgess, Elisabeth Moores (Department of Psychology, Aston University), and Carl Senior (Department of Psychology, Aston University and University of Gibraltar).
  • The original research, published in the journal Plos ONE, can be accessed at http://journals.plos.org/plosone/article?id=10.1371/journal.pone.0192976 

Photos (click links to download)

About Aston University

Founded in 1895 and a University since 1966, Aston is a long established university led by its three main beneficiaries – students, business and the professions, and our region and society. Aston University is located in Birmingham and at the heart of a vibrant city and the campus houses all the university’s academic, social and accommodation facilities for our students.  Professor Alec Cameron is the Vice Chancellor & Chief Executive.

Aston has been a leading university for graduate employment success for over 25 years and our students do extremely well in securing top jobs and careers.  Our strong relationships with industry partners mean we understand the needs of employers, which is why we are also ranked in the top 20 for graduate employability.

About University of Gibraltar

Established in 2015, the University of Gibraltar is a vibrant and ambitious university located in an exceptional geographical location that serves as a reminder of Gibraltar’s inescapable connection with North Africa, the Mediterranean and the Atlantic.

The institution is committed to high-quality teaching and learning, world-leading research, academic freedom as well as to the sustainable development of Gibraltar and the region. Its principal mission is to shape personal and professional futures, through the pursuit of education, training and research. Partnerships with business, government, charitable foundations, healthcare and educational institutions lie at the heart of its ethos.

The University of Gibraltar’s research-led curriculum portfolio offers opportunities for professional development, undergraduate and postgraduate study as well as opportunities for PhD research.

For media inquiries in relation to this release, call Ben Kennedy, Press & PR Officer, on 0121 204 4592 or email b.p.kennedy@aston.ac.uk. Alternatively, email pr@aston.ac.uk

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