Photo: Pixabay use ‘skeeze‘. Creative Commons


The National Student Survey: what’s it all about?

I mean, seriously, what the fuck is the NSS supposed to be?

I get the rhetoric about giving an opinion on the course students have studied which will help inform prospective students’ choices. I get the benign ideal of offering improvements so that the course can develop. What I don’t get is the way they go about achieving those aims and why everybody from the SU President to the VC believes the NSS is a such a useful tool.

The NSS claims to gather “opinions from students about their experience of the courses, asking them to provide honest feedback on what it has been like to study on their course at their institution”. Seems like a thoroughly noble endeavour and why not? Surely the students themselves are best placed to give an opinion on what its actually been like on the ground, so to be speak.

But you have to ask the ‘right’ questions.

Looking at the questions for the survey I’m in bewilderment (as I was when I completed it myself). The questions homogenise a course and reduce the complexity of University education to a simplistic summary that does nothing for the development of courses and everything for making lecturers feel undervalued and more stressed. Plus, prospective students still don’t have a clue about the course.

The NSS works on a series of agree/disagree statements- let’s look at just three of these (my first draft was 1,800 words – I had to cut down):

“Staff are good at explaining things”

Okay, first off what do you mean by ‘good’? This is a survey in an academic institution and has been formed (we’re told) through a three year research programme. So why doesn’t it look like that? Why use such a morally loaded term as ‘good’? How are we measuring ‘good’? Surely it is subjective to each person. We may assume we have the same meaning but ‘good’ for one person could be having questions answered in class because that’s all they needed and another could require extra help outside of class that couldn’t be given because the lecturer was already overworked. The first may mark highly on the NSS the latter less so. How do we address these nuances?

“Marking and assessment has been fair”

Why is this here? If a student genuinely believes there has been foul play, the NSS is not the place to write something because it’s too late to change it. It should be taken up by Course Reps, by Faculty, by Student Services, by the bloody receptionist if need be. If an institution needs the NSS to tell them whether the assessments have been fair then they shouldn’t be a university. Also, universities need to stop with this ‘customer is always right’ bullshit. There have been instances of students not turning up to class, not concentrating in class, not pulling their weight in group work, then blaming the lecturer for favouritism when they receive a bad grade. The ‘investigation’ is then an extremely stressful time for the lecturer where they can be treated as guilty without any support until proven otherwise.

“Feedback on my work has been timely”

Fuck me with a spade. How ambiguous is this? What is defined as ‘timely’? Say you have three year groups of 100 students each handing in an assignment. They all want feedback before the next assignment but as well as lecturing you are: offering pastoral care, going to team meetings, trying to engage in your own research, doing administrative work etc., what is ‘timely’ in this instance? Four weeks? Six? Eight? In time for the students’ next assignment? What if you have a group of 20 students and you give them feedback in two weeks then those students tell the students of the other course that they get feedback in two weeks and so those students then complain to the first lecturer that they want it in two weeks? Seem like a headache? That’s because it is.

Also, there have been instances of faculty actively encouraging students not to use the NSS as an opportunity to ‘have a go’ at the department, that they have a duty to represent the course well to prospective students. I even heard of one instance where a faculty member told a student to redo their survey because it was too negative. This pressure is causing some lecturers to act inappropriately. Rather than welcoming the feedback they actively try to alter the results. It’s not surprising why. Fudge the results of a survey that really means nothing or get a bad report and have to change things that genuinely don’t need changing. What would you choose? And don’t get on your high and mighty moralistic horse. “I would never do such a thing.” Course you would- humans do crazy shit when they’re overworked, undervalued, and feeling a bit cray cray.

The NSS swoops in as this neutral survey that is meant to represent a course in its most accurate light and fails miserably.

If you want simplistic and ambiguous information about a course then the NSS is the one for you. It single handily creates a culture of competition that is based on very poor data drawn from a reductionist’s handbook on Higher Education. It is a very inadequate survey if we are wanting to discover how to improve our courses and to offer an accurate representation of the course. The questions imply a neutral position from which students all have the same understanding of terminology and carry the same expectations of the course. And everyone acts like it’s God’s gift to surveys.

I fucking hate the NSS.