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Harriet Swain explores the National Student Survey and discovers the meaning of levelling up

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8am Playbook


Satisfaction not guaranteed

The National Student Survey is published and we learn the meaning of levelling up

The idea that any student could be satisfied with their university experience during the past pandemic-blighted year seems hard to believe. But 75 per cent of them are, according to the results of the 2021 National Student Survey, published by the Office for Students yesterday.

This could be because the NSS is filled in by final-year students reflecting on the full three or four years of their courses. It is in this spirit that they have answered the 27 core questions, covering teaching, learning opportunities, assessment, academic support, organisation, learning resources, the learning community and the student voice.

And in non-pandemic years, students consistently rate their university experiences highly. This year’s figure of 75 per cent of students reporting overall satisfaction, while high, is a significant fall from 83 per cent last year and well below the previous lowest score—80 per cent—recorded in 2006, a year after the survey was launched.

Covid effects

Declines in agreement rates (those saying they definitely or mostly agree with the proposition in questions) are particularly marked this year for the “learning resources” scale, which has fallen by 12.2 percentage points from 85.8 per cent to 73.6 per cent, and in the scale for “learning community”.

Both are areas likely to have been affected by the pandemic—but since agreement rates in these areas for some providers have actually increased, the effects cannot be assumed. The decision by the Office for Students to ask a separate series of questions to help untangle the specific impact of the virus on students’ responses is therefore helpful.

These Covid questions throw up some surprises. In them, students respond fairly positively when asked about communication and the availability of learning resources, but are much less happy with the way universities have supported their mental wellbeing during Covid and how they have delivered learning and teaching.

Responses to both these and to the core survey questions are much more positive from distance learners, which underlines the fact that for other learners, losing out on the promised campus experience was a major blow.

Provider differences

Responses to the Covid questions are not broken down by provider, but differences between providers in responses to the core questions are clear. The survey benchmarks expected satisfaction rates for each provider, based on respondents’ age, gender, ethnicity, disability, subject and mode of study.

While some institutions have exceeded their benchmarks this year, others have recorded steep declines.

One of these is the University of Manchester, which has been subject to high-profile student protests over rent and campus lockdowns during the pandemic. Only 71 per cent of respondents pronounced themselves satisfied overall with their university experience, below the university’s benchmark of 75 per cent and well below last year’s 81 per cent.

April McMahon, vice-president for teaching, learning and students at the university, said: “It is very clear that our students have not had the final year that they would have wanted, nor deserved. It is certainly not the year we had planned or hoped for them. The NSS covers the whole of these students’ time at university, much of which has been significantly impacted for them by the pandemic restrictions, which were particularly acute in Greater Manchester.”

She said the university had learned a huge amount this year and introduced many innovations to improve the student experience, and that it was already beginning to see improvements and positive responses from students. “We are committed to learning from their comments to improve teaching and student experiences.”

Missing benchmarks

Manchester is one of five Russell Group universities that failed to reach their benchmarks in terms of overall satisfaction. The others are Birmingham, Cardiff, Edinburgh and Newcastle. Oxford and Cambridge failed once again to meet the necessary threshold in terms of numbers of survey responses.

Tom Ward, pro vice-chancellor for education at Newcastle University, said: “This year’s NSS results are extremely disappointing. We welcome this feedback and will be working with student representatives to focus on areas needing a new approach. Our students are represented on many of the university’s key decision-making committees and we will ensure our new sabbatical officers continue to be closely involved in our discussions around the NSS and the areas where we can make a difference.”

A spokesman for the Russell Group said that staff at member universities had worked hard to support students and provide high-quality online teaching and blended learning. Universities have also increased their investment in wider support for students facing hardship, and have developed new ways to provide counselling, mentoring and mental health services, he said.

Dramatic variation

Camille Kandiko Howson, an associate professor of education at Imperial College London who has researched the NSS, told Playbook that the dramatic variation across questions and across institutions in how the pandemic appeared to have affected students’ experiences suggested that much depended on institutional responses to Covid.

But she pointed out that areas over which institutions had greater control, such as teaching, had more positive responses than those more dependent on government guidance. Lower satisfaction scores this year for learning resources, for example, could be to do with institutions anticipating students being allowed back on campus to access materials earlier than ended up being the case.

While she said the responses on mental health support were striking, she questioned whether the NSS was the most appropriate avenue to capture these data and whether institutions controlled support for students’ mental health enough to be held publicly accountable for it.

“The findings on mental wellbeing raise important questions for the ongoing review of the NSS, what the purpose and focus of new questions should be, and what thresholds are being used to make those judgments,” she said.

Subjects and students

As in most years, the survey also revealed clear differences between subjects. There were declines in agreement rates this year across all subjects. Focusing on learning resources, there were particular declines in subjects that included a practical element, such as agriculture, design and the performing arts and languages, where years abroad were affected.

And there are also clear differences between different kinds of student. Why, for example, do female students seem more satisfied than their male counterparts on almost every measure except those to do with communication—their ability to contact staff when they need to, being told about changes, receiving sufficient guidance and advice? Why are they also less satisfied than male students that marking and assessment have been fair?

The survey will reward many hours of happy delving into the detailed responses, which provide a host of small lessons about potential misunderstandings and differences in individuals’ expectations and needs.

One surprise is that students responded this year at all. Universities were told that because of the pandemic, they were not obliged to promote the survey to their students as much as in previous years.

But while responses to the Covid-related questions were relatively low—at 38.6 per cent—mainly because the questions were only asked online, response rates for the core questions remained high—at 69.3 per cent. This suggests either that students were so bored during lockdown that even filling out a survey form seemed an attractive diversion—or that they really valued the chance to give their input.

Root and branch review

All this is in the context of a “radical root and branch review” of the survey launched by the government to help cut bureaucracy and meet a “valid concern from some in the sector that good scores can more easily be achieved through dumbing down and spoon-feeding students, rather than pursuing high standards and embedding the subject knowledge and intellectual skills needed to succeed in the modern workplace”.

The first phase of this review was completed in March and decided that any mention of satisfaction would be dropped in future iterations in order to “reinforce its real purpose” of assessing academic experiences. The second phase is due to look at potential changes to the questions asked and the way information is published. Nicola Dandridge, chief executive of the Office for Students, says the regulator will work closely with students and their representatives to do this.

Responding to the survey’s publication, universities minister Michelle Donelan praised universities for their “innovation and resilience”. But in response to the less positive aspects of this year’s results, she also pointed out that the government had set out clear expectations that the quality and quantity of tuition should be maintained during the pandemic and that it had given universities access to up to £256 million to use towards mental health support.

Playbook readers will be aware that this “up to £256m” was originally designed to support disadvantaged students and is actually less than the £277m dedicated for this purpose in 2019-20, before the pandemic. That hasn’t stopped ministers mentioning it every time the subject of students suffering hardship—of any kind—during the pandemic is brought up. Not something likely to satisfy anyone.

Meanwhile, Kandiko Howson is concerned that the pandemic will affect NSS data for years to come, undermining one of the survey’s major strengths—its stability. But that may make this a particularly good time, she argues, to rethink its remit, purpose and what exactly it is exploring.

And finally...

Thanks to the prime minister, we now know what levelling up is—or do we?

Boris Johnson delivered a major speech on the subject yesterday that left many people baffled. Angela Rayner, deputy leader of the Labour Party, described Johnson’s speech as “gibberish nonsense”, while the prime minister’s former adviser Dominic Cummings described the phrase ‘levelling up’ as “pure Trolley burbling”. 

Speaking at the launch yesterday of a report on social mobility by the Centre for Levelling Up at the University of West London, former education secretary Justine Greening was confident that she knew what it meant—because she came up with the idea.

“I came up with this phrase ‘levelling up’ because I wanted to say you get equality of opportunity by extending it to people; you’re not just taking it away from people,” she said, adding: “You can argue that Boris Johnson’s done really well on the back of levelling up and that people do know what that phrase means, that it’s been incredibly successful for him. But the key is delivery.”

She suggested that the best approach was to break it down into “digestible chunks”, with a game plan and measurements of progress.

According to an article she wrote for The Yorkshire Post earlier this year, she came up with the phrase after talking to her mother, who didn’t understand what social mobility was all about.

On Research Professional News today

Fiona McIntyre tells us that student satisfaction dropped below 80 per cent for the first time in over a decade during the pandemic, and she covers a report from AccessHE on assessing attainment gaps.

She also tells us that staff at the University of Sheffield could take prolonged industrial action in the autumn over plans to close the institution’s archaeology department.

Sophie Inge reports that the head of the UK’s security intelligence agency has warned that researchers are at risk of having their discoveries stolen due to foreign espionage, and prime minister Boris Johnson has promised to use R&D to “level up” the UK as he set out his vision for addressing regional disparities.

Sophie also reveals that the science minister’s special adviser Ben Johnson is stepping down to join the University of Strathclyde in a newly created role.

Robin Bisson writes that the World Health Organization is moving to take a lead role in regulating global work on human gene editing, and funding from the National Institutes of Health in the United States has become concentrated in a smaller pool of researchers at times of rapid change in the NIH budget.

Ben Upton brings us news that the European Institute of Innovation and Technology has announced the winners of a funding initiative to encourage entrepreneurship at universities, and the European Research Council’s administrative Executive Agency has launched a tender for the use of artificial intelligence software to help find suitable experts to review ERC grant applications.

Ben adds that national governments want to cut the European Commission’s proposal for the 2022 budget of Horizon Europe, and a body that advises the European Union on research has suggested that the European Commission should consider creating a fellowship scheme for at-risk researchers, bolstering existing calls for such a scheme.

In the news

The BBC reports that the Office for Students is concerned about mental health help.

An opinion piece in The Guardian asks why Harvard University has not yet fully divested from fossil fuels, and Labour says that a creativity crisis looms for English schools due to arts cuts.

In The Telegraph, a university has withdrawn an offer to a student over a racist Snapchat message.

The Times reports on a man who has received his degree at the age of 96, a university professor has won damages after being falsely accused of rape on a #MeToo blog, and a social work pioneer is to become one of Britain’s youngest Black professors.

A column in The Scotsman says that a review has charted a course of bold ambition for research in Scotland.

In The Herald, mental health support at universities dwindled during the pandemic.

The day ahead

The UK Council for International Student Affairs publishes its annual report.

The Scottish government publishes Covid-19 operational guidance for universities.

The Quality Assurance Agency launches a project called Supporting Successful Student Transitions.

The Student Loans Company advises students on how to avoid long delays on the phone over applications.

The Department for Education publishes the names of Skills Accelerator winners.

The Playbook would not be possible without Martyn Jones, Chris Parr and Fiona McIntyre.

Thanks for reading. Have a great day.

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