The NSS data is released today and it is clear that Swansea has not done as well as it did last year. I think we can still be very pleased with an overall satisfaction score of 90% but there are clearly issues in other parts of the survey that we need to be addressing. I am hoping that we can work together as a community to identify the underlying issues and to address collectively the changes that we will need to make.
What I thought might be useful in this blog, therefore, as a starting point for this process, is to offer a few more general comments on the NSS and what it does, and does not measure, and to outline one or two of the things that we are already doing to address the concerns that such surveys might raise.
The first thing to note, and to constantly keep in mind, is that the NSS is a ‘satisfaction survey’ and that what it measures is ‘student satisfaction’. We may question exactly what this is, or how this is interpreted by students. We may want to raise issues with the methodology, or the statistical concerns that underlie such a survey. Others have done this over many years, and on the whole, while we know there are issues and concerns, most of us recognise that the NSS has now become established and that it does measure something – student satisfaction, a sense of belonging, the commitment of students to the university or their course, levels of frustration at things going wrong – and that the regular reporting of the results over a number of years provides a good test of how our students see the University and various elements of their learning experience. While we must not be fixated with absolute numbers, trends up or down are certainly worth noting.
One thing that has become very clear from experience across the sector is that when things do go wrong, and when students become frustrated at failures of the system (at whatever level) this can have a significant effect on the scores. Such frustrations can be avoided by careful planning, although not all systems are under the control of local programme teams, and mistakes do occur at all levels. We have discovered that it is often the speed of our response, the reassurance that we can give to students that issues are being sorted out, and the strong message that we are listening and responding to concerns can go a long way to mitigate against unforeseen events. We must all be aware of this and do all that we can to avoid anything that might seriously frustrate students in the first place and to be quick to respond and sort problems out when they occur.
Beyond this basic level of professionalism, competence and engagement I think that we are generally very clear about what works, at least in a broad sense, and what does not; what it is that raises levels of satisfaction across the various categories of the survey. We have watched programmes and departments within the University turn themselves around and we have learnt a great deal from what they have done. Not everything will work in every programme, but we can, I think, identify a few basic principles that, if applied across the board, could significantly improve our scores. That was the thinking behind STEP4Excellence last year and we have used the year to engage with students and staff across the University, to learn from our own experiences and to explore what was happening elsewhere, and to develop a number of strategies that will begin to be implemented through the coming academic year. It is not, however, the specific details of STEP4Excellence that I want to develop in the final few paragraphs of this blog, it is more the principles that lie behind it and that we have already seen working in different parts of the University.
Student engagement is key. Having both formal and informal mechanisms by which students can express their concerns, know that these concerns are being listened to, see that something is happening and recognise the changes that have been made as a consequence. Where this has worked particularly well is where informal mechanisms – fortnightly gatherings, drop in sessions, etc. – have supplemented the formal processes. Not every student concern is appropriate, or can be addressed immediately, but it is the fact of some line of communication, that the students are given an honest answer and that those concerns that can be addressed, that makes all the difference. What is more, if such spaces exist and lines of communication and trust are opened up then students feel involved in their learning, can often make suggestions that are well worth taking on board, and the sense of community within the programme can be enhanced.
The second area is student support. There were far too many written responses from the Student Experience Survey that expressed a sense of isolation and loneliness. Students have to feel that they can approach staff across the university and that they will be listened to. We cannot all deal with the issues that may be raised, and we have specialist services to pick these up. We need to make it easier for all members of the university to know where to turn, to know how to contact those who can offer support, and to look out for signs of stress and concern among those who turn to us. We are currently revising the whole personal tutoring system and will be introducing Academic Mentoring and a Student Life Network to provide the kind of support a University like ours should be providing. This will take much of the next year to implement and there will be much more on this in future blogs so do please look out for this.
Finally, teaching and learning. The NSS does not measure teaching quality per se. It asks questions about how good staff are at explaining things, whether staff make the subject interesting, levels of enthusiasm, and whether the course is intellectually stimulating. Students know when they are learning well and when staff take the time to enable their learning in effective ways. NSS is not a beauty contest rewarding the staff that resort to showmanship or dumbing down. Students know what they are at university for and can recognise shallow teaching engagement when they see it. What the NSS questions reward is teaching that engages with the students, includes them in their own learning, and enables them to see clearly what it is that they are gaining from the experience. This is, of course, much easier in small groups than in large lecture theatres and we are all aware of the challenges that growing numbers offer in this area. We need to work together, therefore, as a community to explore new and innovative ways, as well as building on what we already know works well, to engage with our students and to support them in their learning.
There is, of course, much more that could be said, and much more that we all could be doing. I welcome any responses, suggestions and proposals. This is something that is absolutely core to our business and we all need to work together to improve, for the sake of our students, and for our own sense of satisfaction.