NSS: Pros and cons

Friday 02-02-2018 - 11:55
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Following the Durham SU Officers’ statement regarding the National Student Survey, we have put together a list of pros and cons to help inform your decision as to whether to take part in the survey.



Hearing the student voiceUniversities cannot say that they were not aware of problems if they are highlighted clearly by feedback in the NSS. Even if the questions themselves don’t lead to discussions of a particular problem, the opportunity for free-text comments allows students to raise their own issues there.

Data, data, data! The sheer amount of data, as well as the breakdowns across courses, domicile and socio-economic classification, among many other things, allows for a detailed examination of student satisfaction in a number of different ways. Because of the intersectionality of this data it is possible in many cases – though not always for small courses – to drill down into specific departmental issues relatively easily.

Lobby awayUniversities usually share at least some of their NSS data with their students’ union, association or guild – though this can vary depending on the strength of the relationship. This gives student representatives a strong lobbying position to push for improvements to areas which are deficient, especially if representatives have access to free-text comments, and can use those alongside their own research and knowledge.

Inform your choiceNSS gives students a wide variety of metrics that they can compare across different institutions, which enable students to make a more informed decision on which university to choose, and thanks to the detailed nature of the data, often examine right down to the course level. This level of detail means that poor courses can’t hide in good institutions, which will hopefully lead to improvements in quality.



MarketisationWhile there is no longer an explicit link between the outcomes of the Teaching Excellence Framework (TEF) and fees, TEF itself is impacted by the NSS results of an institution. The more that we are encouraged to look towards “satisfaction”, the less we will focus on underlying academic quality, and the more we regard education as a commodity to be bought and sold, rather than an important public good.

Data blindnessWhile the sheer amount of data is at first glance useful, it is also a problem in itself – there’s so much at once that it becomes easy for a university to overlook problems that they have been given anecdotally, in order to work instead on things that will make the data look better for the next NSS.

Aggregation leads to aggrovationQuestion 27 of the NSS asks about “Overall Satisfaction”, which is very broad. The overall university experience can be impacted by a huge variety of factors, and yet Q27 scores are the main metric used by the press to compare institutions. Though universities internally use the whole range of results to encourage departments to change, low Q27 scores can be used negatively against departments in the media, when it is very difficult to tell just how much of that result is really down to the department.

Course culledFalling NSS scores can be used to justify the closure of some courses which institutions may be seeking to close for other reasons (such as financial or research reasons), while NSS scores may be ignored for more profitable courses.

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