NSS consultation yields no changes to OfS plans

I'm old enough to remember when consultations meant policy was up for debate

David Kernohan is Acting Editor of Wonkhe

It’s common in some universities to use a “you said, we did” framing in publicising responses to issues raised in the National Student Survey.

Alas, when it comes to the Office for Students’ own consultation on changes to NSS, the framing is more along the lines of “you said, we did what we were going to do anyway”.

Following 250 responses over five weeks, all seven of the postulated OfS proposals will proceed as planned.

What if the real consultation was the friends we made along the way?

The whole survey moves to direct questions with a four-point scale from 2023, the summative question remains in the devolved nations but disappears in England, new questions on freedom of expression (in England only) and mental wellbeing provision will be added from 2023, the window for student responses will be shortened slightly from 2025 onwards in line with changes to other data collections. Future reviews of NSS will happen on a four-year cycle – but with other reviews added whenever OfS feels like it.

We went over the nuts and bolts of these proposals when the consultation was launched – everything we said on the substance of these plans still stands. What little value there is on anyone reading the consultation response comes from some of the Office for Students’ grimly entertaining self-justifications against similar charges.

We don’t use it, so you can’t have it

For example – around ninety per cent of respondents were against the removal of the summative question (current Q27) in England. The justification for removing it is simply that OfS do not use the question within current regulatory approaches. And that’s it. If you want to compare across nations, you’ll need to use some kind of agglomeration of the other questions.

A majority of respondents did not see the value in the freedom of expression question – we get an “issue raised by stakeholders” justification without any indication of who those stakeholders might be, or whether this question actually addressed the issues that stakeholders raised.

On this, one curiosity is that apparently some students saw freedom of expression as “essential to a sense of inclusion and belonging”. This issue didn’t come up in our recent research, but never mind. You’d think a specific question on inclusion and belonging may be of more use – but the current question 21 (“I feel part of a community of staff and students”) is being removed, with the justification that apparently some students didn’t understand it well enough and it wasn’t really about belonging and inclusion anyway.

I could go on with these examples, but to be honest the whole exercise is fundamentally depressing, and one that seems to be a continuation of a pattern developing in these consultations. There is apparently another consultation on NSS to come (and one on the use of the revised questions in the new TEF) but as proposed question 24 nearly puts it:

How clear is it that feedback is acted on?

Bonus content

Here, then, are the questions from 2023 onwards.

Scale#question
Teaching on my course1How good are staff at explaining things?
Teaching on my course2How often do teaching staff make the subject engaging?
Teaching on my course3How often is the course intellectually stimulating?
Teaching on my course4How often does your course challenge you to achieve your best work?
Learning opportunities5To what extent have you had the chance to explore ideas and concepts in depth?
Learning opportunities6How well does your course introduce subjects and skills in a way that builds on what you have already learned?
Learning opportunities7To what extent have you had the chance to bring together information and ideas from different topics?
Learning opportunities8To what extent does your course have the right balance of directed and independent study?
Learning opportunities9How well has your course developed your knowledge and skills that you think you will need for your future?
Assessment and feedback10How clear were the criteria used for marking your work?
Assessment and feedback11How fair has the marking and assessment been on your course?
Assessment and feedback12How well have assessments allowed you to demonstrate what you have learned?
Assessment and feedback13How often have you received assessment feedback on time?
Assessment and feedback14How often does feedback help you to improve your work?
Academic support15How easy was it to contact teaching staff when you needed to?
Academic support16How well have teaching staff supported your learning?
Organisation and Management17How well organised is your course?
Organisation and Management18How well were any changes to teaching on your course communicated?
Learning resources19How well have the IT resources and facilities supported your learning?
Learning resources20How well have the library resources (e.g., books, online services and learning spaces) supported your learning?
Learning resources21How easy is it to access subject specific resources (e.g., equipment, facilities, software) when you need them?
Student voice22To what extent do you get the right opportunities to give feedback on your course?
Student voice23To what extent are students' opinions about the course valued by staff?
Student voice24How clear is it that students' feedback on the course is acted on?
Student voice25How well does the students' union (association or guild) represent students' academic interests?
Overall26(Not England) Overall, I am satisfied with the quality of the course.
Mental wellbeing services27How well communicated was information about your university/college's mental wellbeing support services?
Freedom of expression28(England only) During your studies, how free did you feel to express your ideas, opinions and beliefs?

Update: I’ve been reassured that everyone’s favourite question – the free text question – also remains in the template for the whole UK.

10 responses to “NSS consultation yields no changes to OfS plans

  1. If “we don’t use it” is justification for not having a question, surely that is justification for not wasting time and money on these Potemkin consultations?

  2. So glad I disturbed my colleagues on leave and cancelled some if my own to fill in this completely pointless summer consultation.

  3. Yep. I also enjoyed them agreeing that the survey needed to remain clearly focussed on the academic experience, but then also that there was no agreed definition of the academic experience, so they’d ask the questions they wanted about FoS and Mental Health advertising anyway (whether MH is or isn’t academic aside, I don’t see how our publicity around the availability of MH is a key academic concern) as ‘some stakeholders’ also felt they were critical to the academic experience.

    One of the more frustrating things is how clearly each decision to reject feedback is an individual argument – there is no holistic view from the OfS (behind doing what we want) – just a series of often contradictory justifications of why any points made will be disregarded. All politics, no substance.

  4. Does this not count as gross maladministration? A consultation issued when there is no meaningful opportunity for institutions to organise a response and then ignoring all the comments? How can the OfS be challenged formally?

  5. The statements and wording in 2022 seem more student friendly to me; shorter and written in plainer English. Also, will all students understand what directed and independent study means (Q8)?

  6. I wonder if the OfS realise the extent to which they are alienating providers. We all understand that they are there for the students, and as such they will make decisions that providers may not like, but it would just seem to be in everyone’s interests if they worked with institutions, rather than continually aggravating, patronising and ignoring them. It honestly feels as though they want to make enemies and be disliked, like they’re on a weird power trip. Just work with us guys. I’d love some honest OfS representation on here, or anywhere to be honest.

    1. I did offer OfS a response piece but I was simply pointed to the publication and press release.

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