Every summer, universities wait in apprehension for the scores that will dictate meeting agendas and departmental plans for the following year.
Consisting of 27 core questions, the results of the National Student Survey (NSS) remain one of the most referenced sets of data available within the sector. All institutions registered with the Office for Students must invite their final year cohort to complete the survey and, despite its detractors, over 70 percent of final year students responded last year.
The students’ union sector has a complicated relationship with the NSS. The infamous question 26 remains a source of contention and is often seen as a poor way to judge the entirety of such a complex organisation. The question previously asked respondents whether they were satisfied with their students’ union however, in 2017, this was changed to question whether their SU represents their academic interests.
In one sense, the NSS gets it right. Students’ Unions are often misunderstood by people who see them as no more than a bar or, arguably worse, a department of the university and so it’s refreshing to hear them being defined by one of their core purposes. By talking about representation in relation to academia, it also reinforces our legitimacy when it comes to lobbying institutions to provide a better educational experience.
When a union’s success is measured by how well it challenges the institution, it is in a university’s interests to listen and respond to these challenges.
Unfortunately question 26 works on the assumption that all students enter tertiary education purely to study their chosen course when, in reality, many are buying into a lifestyle that promises independence, an active social life and the chance to find their place in the world.
Whilst not every university experience will fulfil this criteria, it’s fair to say that students’ unions do a pretty good job at it. For many, a sports award from the Union is held in similar esteem to their degree certificate, the memory of their first Freshers’ Fair is more vivid than that of their module choices and running in an election gave them more confidence than achieving a 2.1.
Question 26 overlooks many of the activities that make an SU so special; the sense of community offered by clubs and societies, the endless opportunities to develop new skills and the non-judgmental support of its advice service to name just a few. This is before you take into account the incredible ability students have to shape their union into the organisation they want it to be, whether that’s through voting in a referendum or becoming the SU president.
And another thing
There are other matters the SU sector takes issue with when it comes to the NSS. A few years ago, there was a fiercely successful boycott due to its links with the Teaching Excellence Framework (TEF). The marketisation of education aside, some question the survey’s effectiveness given the limited scope to tailor questions. There’s also the matter of placement; some believe that respondents will have already made up their mind about their university experience before they reach question 26, meaning the feedback received by SUs simply reflects the success or failure of their institutions.
The focus on the academic experience is not entirely without its merits – it bolsters the argument for a well-funded academic representation system and reiterates the importance of student involvement in curriculum design. But it also assumes that our representation offer is limited to a students’ academic interests. As most unions will attest to, this is not the case.
From underfunded counselling services to unaffordable rent, the issues impacting our members extend far beyond their course. The most engaging lecturer isn’t much good to a student who is yet to receive mental health support or has to choose between textbooks and toiletries. Non-academic representation is not a luxury add-on; it is a necessity for institutions who want students to fully engage with their learning.
Ultimately, we’re all hungry for data that can reveal the key to the perfect student experience however, if that’s what we expect of the NSS, it’s no wonder it falls short. You’re unlikely to capture the nuances of an SU through a single survey question, however broadening the scope of representation would be a good place to start.
We should also consider the providers that do not have an SU (typically those who are smaller and more specialist). I would question whether the statements within the student voice section suffice, given these institutions offer little in the way of independent representation. Perhaps a better way to gauge performance in this area would be to ask respondents if they feel they are well represented to their provider (and then monitor whether the absence of an SU impacts this score).
The NSS will continue to be criticised for as long as it exists however this won’t stop its stakeholders attempting to use its results to their advantage, whether that’s recruitment departments advertising improvements or sabbatical officers using low scores as a lobbying tool.
Question 26 may not be our chosen measure but it can serve as a reminder to institutions that truly effective representation depends on their willingness to listen to their SU. Considering the challenges the sector is facing and the anxiety around providing a quality student experience, this has never been so important.