The NSS – The Perfect Storm in our Midst

The National Students Survey, or the NSS in short, is now into the tenth year, and it remains as controversial as ever. In 2005, institutions and departments who did not subscribe to it simply ignored it, or if pushed, would regally declare that it was simply a point-scoring instrument of little academic consequence. Fast forward to 2015, and the NSS has become a real monster in our midst. You can only ignore it at your peril, even if you do not subscribe to its academic efficacy. Up and down the country, university leaders are falling over each other trying to ensure that their institutions at least get favourable NSS scores. And woe betide the academic department which chooses to regard the NSS as inconsequential.

The NSS is an instrument for measuring student satisfaction. It achieves this by requesting near-graduates to report on their experiences in their undergraduate programmes (Robinson & Sykes, (2014). Now any reasonable person would think that is a good idea. After all, as academics we all depend on student feedback to improve our own teaching. The downside is that this is all very public, with all the NSS results being published on a public league table. If your institution, and your department score very highly, that is good enough.  Your vice chancellor will be happy, and will proudly announce the quality of your institution’s teaching on the public-facing institutional web-site, and, for good measure, you might even receive a bonus. If, however, you are far down the NSS league table, then all hell breaks loose. Yorke, Orr and Blair (2013) put it much better – having low NSS scores is like being hit by the perfect storm. Everything goes up into the air. Your teaching suddenly falls under public scrutiny. The vice chancellor will immediately place your departmental teaching under a magnifying glass, and, as so often happens, in no time, officious academic services staff will be scrutinising your departmental teaching activities, and making recommendations which you dare not disagree with.

Why all this concern, you might ask. Because it matters for student recruitment, and for institutional credibility.  The NSS league table serves to inform the prospective student of how good your department is in comparison to your competitors. Not only that, the NSS scores will find their way into the government-mandated key information sets (KIS). These are the summary statements about the quality of your undergraduate programmes that now appear as a matter of legal requirement alongside your advertisement for the undergraduate programmes offered by your department. Whilst home students may be somewhat immune from NSS scores, this is not so with international students upon whom we now depend for a significant proportion of university income. As Gordon Slaven, head of higher education at the British Council, which promotes UK education, says “How current students present their life on campus online now plays a vital role in how prospective students will view and make a decision on where they should study.” And, for potential students in distant lands, the NSS is the definitive window into our institutional and departmental teaching.

But it doesn’t have to be all doom and gloom at all. Paul Ramsden (2007), the author of the NSS survey has this to say: The NSS is a “window into how our design for learning are experienced by students and the survey should lead to practical changes to improve quality.” He goes on to suggest that the most important determinants of the student experience are teachers’  “clarity of explanations” and their “ability and willingness to understand student difficulties.” Indeed some departments at the receiving end of the NSS storm have taken aboard his advice with remarkable success. For instance, Robinson and Sykes (2014) report how they successfully enlisted the help of current students to interpret the data from the students’ emic perspective and to suggest ideas for improving the curriculum based on their analysis of the results. Hence, in this case, the NSS has helped to bring together students and academic staff into a working partnership aimed at improving learning and teaching within their departments. Indeed, as Ramsden (2007) points out, students are stakeholders in the delivery of learning, and they should contribute to the improvement of departmental learning environments.

Canning (2015) suggests that as academics, it is mandatory that we improve the learning environment for our students. For instance, in the 2014 NSS, 86% of the surveyed students responded positively to Question 22 of the NSS survey: ‘Overall, I am satisfied with the quality of the course.’ Canning counters that this leaves over 50,000 students graduating from our universities after 3 or 4 years with unsatisfactory student experiences.

A lot of studies have been conducted on how the student experience can be improved. However, as Gibbs (2010) concludes in his studies on quality dimensions in higher education teaching, all these studies boil down to one thing – the effectiveness of institutions in delivering quality teaching depends primarily on the development and sustenance of an institutional ethos devoted to student success.  And this is not necessarily expensive, as simply upholding teaching values and showing students that we care can bring about immense improvements in the quality of teaching (Gibbs, Knapper & Picinnin, 2009).  As commercial organisations have learnt to accept all along: quality is in the eye of the beholder – and for us in higher education the primary beholder is our current student.


Canning, J. (2015). Half a million unsatisfied graduates? Increasing scrutiny of National Student Survey’s ‘overall’ question. Educational Developments16(3)

Gibbs, G. (2010). Dimensions of quality. York: Higher Education Academy.

Gibbs, G., Knapper, C., & Picinnin, S. (2009). Departmental Leadership of Teaching in Research-Intensive Environments – Final Report. Leadership Foundation for Higher Education. Available: [Retrieved 28 Oct, 2015.]

Ramsden, P. (2007). „Inspiring tomorrow‟ s students‟. Address to the Higher Education Academy Annual Conference, July 2. Harrogate.

Robinson, L., & Sykes, A. (2014). Listening to Students’ Views on NSS Data for Quality Enhancement. Health and Social Care Education3(1), 35-40.

Yorke, M., Orr, S., & Blair, B. (2014). Hit by a perfect storm? Art & Design in the National Student Survey. Studies in Higher Education39(10), 1788-1810.

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