The Campaign for the Public University, drawing on work by the Institute of Education, London, have published an advert in the Times Higher Education supplement calling for a code of practice in the way institutions use the results of the National Student Survey (NSS).
They may be right to do so but there is a greater issue, the nature of the survey itself. Working in a department which has seen its NSS satisfaction score rise to 100% then drop down to 75% amongst some students and for no discernible reason (in either case), questions have got to be asked about whether polling students is really the best way to measure the worth of a degree, especially when it takes only a small number of neutral students – six who are neither satisfied nor dissatisfied – to decrease the overall satisfaction score by 25 percentage points.
Of course, it is important that Universities listen to their students. Yes, they are customers about to face raised fees. And, yes, my experience is that the NSS has helped to raise awkward but necessary questions about teaching practices within Higher Education.
But, there is a real danger that Universities will become so preoccupied by the NSS that they will simply respond strategically to their students’ expectations rather than widening them. The purpose of a University is to provoke, to inspire critical thinking and to provide intellectual fulfillment. It is not at all clear how the over-regulation of crude, standardised information can achieve this.