Yes but what are students dissatisfied about?

The thing about the National Student Survey is that it uses the five-point Likert scale.

Jim is an Associate Editor at Wonkhe

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Elsewhere on the site my colleague David Kernohan has crunched most of the headline numbers from this year’s National Student Survey, numbers which thanks to the Office for Students (OfS) tend to be about agreement rates – those saying they definitely or mostly agree with the proposition in questions.

But as DK pointed out a while ago on the site, looking at agreement rates doesn’t necessarily tell us what’s going on with disagreement. And if ever there was a year when we needed to know what students were actively dissatisfied with rather than just ambivalent, this is probably the one.

OfS don’t make getting there easy. So a caveat – I’ve had to reverse engineer the percentages by question and every provider to recalculate national totals here, which include both full and part-time students, and doing so introduces the possibility of some errors because the percentages we have by question and provider are rounded to two decimal points. If OfS fancies calculating these precisely and releasing ther results, I’ll amend the piece.

Also – there’s no way for us to look at “actively dissatisfied” by things like subject or student characteristic – which I think is a real pity, or “active dissatisfaction” on the six Covid questions.

Anyway, if you’re just looking at % agree – the top five answers this year are Staff are good at explaining things, the Course is intellectually stimulating, my Course has provided me with opportunities to bring information and ideas together from different topics, I have been able to contact staff when I needed to, and I have had the right opportunities to provide feedback on my course.

Down the bottom on % agree are the Students’ union (association or guild) effectively represents students’ academic interests, It is clear how students’ feedback on the course has been acted on, I feel part of a community of staff and students, the Course is well organised and is running smoothly, and Feedback on my work has been timely.

The result on “I feel part of a community of staff and students” should worry us all – as we know from previous research that that answer has a strong correlation with self-reported mental health. That’s a question (Q21) worth mining locally to see which students on which courses are likely to have suffered the most.

SUs will be disappointed – but given that most SUs lost all of their commercial income and furloughed a truck of staff to stop going bust, the idea that this infinitesimally small bit of the overall higher education expenditure budget is still getting 54 per cent agree is great news.

And the fact that the question that comes below it on 52 per cent is “it is clear how students’ feedback on the course has been acted on” tells us something about how effective an SU can be on effectively representing students’ academic interests if the institutional culture is not to tell students what’s been done with their feedback.

What gets very interesting though is if you look not just at % agree but % disagree – active dissatisfaction. And then a slightly different picture emerges:

As you can see, bottom five on disagree are Staff are good at explaining things, The course is intellectually stimulating, Opportunities to bring information and ideas together from different topics, Opportunities to explore ideas or concepts in depth, and the Right opportunities to provide feedback on my course.

Top five active disagree are It is clear how students’ feedback on the course has been acted on, I feel part of a community of staff and students, The course is well organised and is running smoothly, Feedback on my work has been timely, and Any changes in the course or teaching have been communicated effectively.

SUs have the highest “Neither Agree nor Disagree” score, on 32.13%. That indicates a) that a whole bunch of providers don’t have one, and b) underfunding in the ones that do.

What this tell us is that students are most unhappy overall about Feedback being acted on, followed by Community of staff and students, Course is well organised and is running smoothly and Timely feedback. In an alternative universe, both providers locally and OfS nationally would now be sketching together a national action plan that addresses these areas in time for September.

Meanwhile, the sector should be best pleased with Staff good at explaining things, Course intellectually stimulating, Opportunities to bring information and ideas together, and Contact staff when I needed to. In other words – students’ dissatisfaction was never really about the efforts of staff. It was about everything else (not just their “social lives”).

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