Two Views. You Choose: should students’ unions promote the NSS?

Friday 29-01-2016 - 15:58

Two Views. You Choose is a space on NUS Connect where we invite two representatives from different SUs to argue for/against a topic concerning the student movement before letting you vote! January and the start of the National Student Survey go hand in hand, but not everyone sees eye to eye on whether or not unions should actively support it.


Should students’ unions engage in promoting the National Student Survey?

Yes, we should promote the NSS.
Millie Thomas, Vice President Education, University of Sunderland Students’ Union

The National Student Survey matters a lot at Sunderland. I couldn’t do my job without it. I’m really pleased I’ve got this opportunity to share my experience of using it to help make our students’ time at university valuable.

I was taught at university that there’s no such thing as good data or bad data – there’s just data. The NSS gives me a really good understanding of what recent final year students think about their time at Sunderland, but the data doesn’t force me to do anything. When I get the NSS results, I reflect on them, talk to students, SU Officers and staff, and university colleagues about their views on what the data could mean, and what we could do about it. I don’t agree with criticisms that the NSS is a sign of a corporatist or commercialised higher education sector, because the way we behave in response to data is entirely our own choice. I get that less confident institutions could react badly to the NSS, and treat it like customer feedback, but at Sunderland we treat it like a prompt for further conversations about students, with students – and, from my point of view, that’s a good thing. SUs often struggled to have opportunities for strategic, institutional discussions before the NSS put student views front and centre, and I welcome this change.

 And I also hear a lot from students who are part of the conversations that have arisen from the NSS. Student reps at Sunderland discuss the NSS with their academic colleagues, and are a really important part of planning developments to the programme in partnership. I won’t lie – Sunderland SU is always striving for a closer partnership approach to develop programmes together. It isn’t because academics at Sunderland, and university leaders, aren’t totally committed – they are - but because it’s our job to always strive for closer partnership. The NSS is really helpful for this, because it gives us a common language, and frame of reference, to start conversations. Student reps can then, we hope, move on to more exciting work in developing teaching practice and student learning but we need to start somewhere, and the NSS helps us to do that.

The NSS has helped Sunderland SU make a real difference for students, and helped us to start conversations with our university that have led to us working together to make change. I’m really proud, for example, that it has helped drive new thinking in our careers and employability support. We shouldn’t forget that the NSS helps students to have conversations between our excellent colleagues in support services, as well as with academics. Sunderland’s really upped our game, with great results, for our students who want exciting, rewarding, careers, because the NSS helped us to point to evidence that students didn’t think their experience of personal development opportunities were as good as they should be. And following years of effort, and the development of our Sunderland Futures offer, our students are much more satisfied with their personal development, and rank Sunderland above the national average.

But, to finish, I just wanted to say how proud I am that my university, at least, are much more concerned about how the NSS guides our continuous work in making education better for students than competition. We can’t escape the league table mentality (which was definitely around before the NSS, and wasn’t caused by it) but I’ve never been part of a conversation which wasn’t focussed on deciding the right, best, thing to do to make students learn better and achieve more. If institutions are chasing satisfaction, rather than using data to guide enhancement, I think that says more about the institution than the survey. A modern university like Sunderland needs to know that we’re always fulfilling our mission, and helping students through a valuable education experience. We need to know what the start of the conversation is, and we need to know if our efforts have succeeded.  Basically - if we didn’t have the NSS already, we’d have to invent it. It’s too useful not to have.

No, we shouldn’t promote the NSS.
Michael Spence, Education Officer, University of Manchester Students’ Union

When the university begins to push the NSS out to students I, like many officers around the country, will not be helping them. The reason for this is that the NSS is seriously flawed as a data source; it oversimplifies a complex sector, aides the damaging marketisation of education, is biased against black academics, conflates satisfaction with quality, and is open to ‘gaming’.

Quality is complex and means different things to different students. Trying to pin down quality to a linear scale means that teaching styles not suited to the mythical ‘average student’ are slowly eroded. The comments in the NSS are the only part that may be able to unpack this, but they are never made public.

One of the NSS’ fatal flaws is that it contributes to the damaging marketisation narrative of ‘students as customers’. In this scenario students are buying a product, rather than receiving an education. However, students should not be treated as customers but as partners in their education who are actively engaged in their learning. Whilst much of the sector recognises that partnership is the way forward, the NSS is slowing this progress.

The NSS is not a survey that actually measures quality. It measures ‘satisfaction’ which is a subtle, but important, difference. How you answer a question on satisfaction is very different from how you answer a question on quality. Think of it this way: if after a McDonald’s you were asked about your satisfaction and the meal’s quality, think how your answers would differ.

Whilst the NSS is sometimes marketed as a tool for students to change their course for the better; this is often simply not the case. An example of this is at my own institution, the University of Manchester. Here economics students were angry at the singular and uncritical way their degree was being taught and so launched a campaign to give the course a poor NSS score. Despite it being successful in lowering the scores of economics courses, the university dismissed the concerns about curriculum design and moved on. 

One of the biggest problems with the NSS is that it is open to gaming. Students are told about the impact poor NSS scores could have on their employability; a senior lecturer in Psychology at Kingston told students that no-one will want to employ them if they “think your degree is shit”. At London Met students were shown a slide which warned of the impact of the NSS on the reputation of the university and their degree. Middlesex university has its own “NSS lounge” which is filled with hearts, and has people (also dressed as hearts) come up to students and hug them and encourage them to fill out the NSS on one of their iPads.  All this gaming in the sector means that the NSS is largely useless as a comparator metric.

As problematic as the NSS is currently, it’s about to get much worse. The NSS is one of the metrics that will form the teaching excellence framework (TEF) and success in that decides what fee level a university can charge!

With all the massive problems that the NSS has or causes, I honestly do not believe that students’ unions should promote it to their students.

Should students’ unions engage in promoting the National Student Survey?
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