Last term, any email I received entitled “National Student Survey” was likely to be skim-read and instantly forgotten. For us stressed finalists, dosed up on caffeine and hearing the announcement “the library will close in 15 minutes” more often than our parents’ voices, the constant badgering to fill in some survey about our time here was irritating and seemed an irrelevance. However, the NSS is far more than the sum of its parts and its importance to the student experience of later years is hard to over-estimate. Students may not realise this – but the universities do.
Theoretically the survey acts as a neutral arbiter to see if we feel three years of key texts, hangovers and spectacular academic achievement (obviously) have been worth it. However, the results feed directly into those hallowed gods of knowledge – the league tables. The desperate pleading to input our impressions is with this in mind; Politics were extremely keen to emphasise that marking “neither agree nor disagree” would count against them.
Given recent controversy, it is even more important these days to be seen to be worth the time, effort and exorbitant fees. The NSS is the sole measure of “student satisfaction” in rankings, and success here will attract future students and, more importantly, future cash.
Thus, it is tacitly known not to break bad news during its run from January to April. Universities plan the intensity of building work and schedule popular courses around these dates to hopefully gain a favourable rating. York decided to donate £1 to the Student Hardship Fund for every survey completed. Other universities hold seminars on the importance of the survey, so students are fully aware of the consequences before giving their verdict. The impressive, if tedious, publicity machine had all been briefed by university “guidelines”, openly accessible on the University website – “there are concerns around being seen to ‘influence’ rather than inform … it is not acceptable to make an explicit link between the NSS, league tables and the perceived value of the students’ degrees”. Very politically correct, but this rather highlights the problem.
Moreover, giving such significance to what for most will be a procrastination tool is questionable. Asking us whether we are satisfied is not necessarily a reflection of quality. We might be happier if exams were easier, modules were condensed or that particularly boring political philosopher was dropped from the course. Such concessions might improve satisfaction levels without being academically right.
Ultimately, universities seek our departing seal of approval to persuade prospective students of their merits. Thus, for the class of 2011, any legacy we leave behind probably won’t be excellent essays or tales that enter Ziggy’s folklore, but just a few ticks in boxes. “The University of York” is indelibly written on our CVs, but what that means will change. Those who follow us will shape what our degrees really mean – but we influence who arrives and universities know this.
As it stands, universities are judged comparatively rather than by their objective quality. The NSS is a key component of this. It started life as a useful way for students to express their opinions but its very importance has made it less relevant to reality. Universities only just stop short of outright manipulation to ensure that we are as positive as possible about them in these final assessments. There should be better ways of gauging what we think. It is important for finalists to give feedback, but not in this way. The NSS has been hijacked by universities and robbed of its real purpose.