More engaging? Making sense of the new NSS

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After whetting our appetites with the outcomes of their consultation into the future of the National Student Survey six weeks ago, HEFCE has finally released the list of questions that will form the NSS from 2017. The changes are significant and are based on extensive consultation with the sector, which you can read more about in my previous post for Wonkhe.

The new survey is slightly longer than the current version, at 27 questions in eight sections compared to the current 23 in six. The most substantial change is the introduction of nine new questions looking at aspects of student engagement. Student engagement is a very broad term covering a wide range of activities and behaviours, from individual motivation in the classroom to feeling empowered to help shape a community of staff and students. It is pleasing to see that the survey addresses the nuance of what is often a blanket term.

Discourse around student engagement has changed substantially over the past seven or eight years, driven strongly by NUS, the HEA and subsequently the Student Engagement Partnership. NUS’s Manifesto for Partnership was published in 2012 as a response to the 2011 White Paper, arguing for an ideological shift from the market-based conception of “students as consumers” towards a more collaborative, community-based approach that values educators and students as partners. This idea has become influential within the sector, notably demonstrated by QAA’s inclusion of the term in Chapter B5 of the UK Quality Code.

But student engagement is also increasingly seen as a crucial part of a quality learning experience. Individual engagement with your discipline, feeling part of a learning community and being empowered to shape your education have positive effects on retention, attainment and progression, particularly for students from less “traditional” backgrounds.

Changing behaviours

With a third of the new survey addressing different aspects of student engagement, institutions will have no choice but to prioritise it in the coming years. The NSS has been a catalyst for changes to internal pedagogical policies and practices, as evidenced for example by the huge amount of work put into improving assessment and feedback. A review of HEFCE’s teaching enhancement activity by the HEA in 2014 cited the survey as the funder’s most cost-effective intervention aimed at improving teaching quality.

Reshaping the survey to focus on input variables builds upon the NSS’s role as a driver of change and might actually make a huge difference to the quality of learning. Perhaps the TEF overlords should rethink the questions they harvest from the new survey (current proposals are the sections on staff, and assessment and feedback) and look at including the new student engagement questions.

The politics of student voice

Another major change to the survey is the amending of the current question 23 on students’ unions. There have been years of back and forth on both the content of this question and its inclusion in the core survey. The new question focuses in on what many in the students’ union sector consider to be unions’ core purpose: the effective representation of students’ interests in academic life. This is for a number of reasons: first, in order to comply with the newly introduced criteria for the NSS stating that core questions must be primarily about teaching and learning; second, because consultation with unions showed that many would find this a more helpful question; and most importantly third, in order to improve practice and behaviour in this area.

This new question will not be universally welcomed by unions and universities. Even those that do welcome a change in focus recognise there will be an uphill struggle if they hope to score well. Students’ unions offer a wide range of extremely valuable services on budgets which are simply incomparable to that of a university, and often struggle to communicate their impact, particularly around academic representation. I hope that the introduction of this new question 26 will shift the thinking of many students’ unions CEOs towards better resourcing of academic representation, and that universities will step up to the plate when it comes to working in partnership and providing financial support to their students’ unions.

A welcome step forward

The NSS was definitely due a rethink after ten years of operation in a fast-paced and ever-changing sector. I am pleased with the new questionnaire, which I think is responsive to the needs of the sector in 2016. The focus on student engagement will help kick-start a much needed cultural change, even within institutions that have so far resisted the partnership amd student engagement agenda. The new questions will be challenging for both institutions and their students’ unions, but the reorientation of the survey firmly towards the enhancement of learning and teaching is extremely welcome.

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