The NSS – a pet hate

I have been so wrapped up in Clearing and preparing for the new academic year that I missed a recent Guardian article about the National Student Satisfaction Survey (NSS) completely until it appeared in my Facebook timeline. The article claims that the Survey should be abolished before it does any more harm. I couldn’t agree more.

The NSS is one of my pet hates (I have many), one of those utterly stupid games we feel we must play in HE. The articles captures its uselessness for actually telling us anything well. I won’t add to that here but I do want to reflect on how the NSS and all that comes with it plays out for me. The NSS is a game, unfortunately it is a game with high stakes with the results heavily influencing university rankings and rankings heavily influencing student recruitment and with student recruitment heavily influencing the institution’s bottom line… You get the drift. Just leaving students to complete the survey, or not, as they wish is thus a risky strategy. Students must be encouraged to complete it, cajoled or bribed into completing it or, dare I say it, forced into completing it. We didn’t force anyone to complete the survey here – at least not that I am aware of but the university offered prizes/discounts etc when certain completion rate thresholds were reached.

Of course completion is not enough – we need positive scores. The survey is a ranking tool, not a tool through which universities genuinely seek feedback from students. So how do you ensure your students give you the ‘right’ score? Well I would argue you don’t. You let them get on with it and if they mark you down you should have a think about it – they may have a point, they may not! But that’s not how it works in HE anymore. We are constantly asked to think about student satisfaction. What can we do to enhance it, what can we do to make sure we get high scores in the NSS? These are entirely the wrong questions to ask in education. Education is not about being satisfied. Higher education is about learning to cope with uncertainty, about being pushed out of your comfort zone and to your intellectual limits, it’s about confronting your own prejudices and ideals, it’s about thinking deeply and critically about everything you thought you knew. That is a lot of things but it probably isn’t ‘satisfaction’ – particularly if you find it difficult.

I am all for seeking and listening to student feedback and students’ views. I am open to having some really challenging debates with students about what they want from their higher education. I will challenge their views and expect them to challenge mine but I don’t pay much attention to the NSS. It doesn’t tell me anything about how to make our programmes better or how to engage students. It doesn’t tell me how to be a better teacher or how to help students learn. The higher the scores go and the less variation there is, the more depressed I get. There are so many things wrong with higher education at the moment, programmes and universities vary so much, it is absurd to think that the scores across the sector could genuinely vary so little. So the results tell me this:  – we are teaching our students to tick boxes in a stupid game that tells us nothing. That’s not why I’m an academic, don’t know about you.

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