The NSS lacks comparability of experience and ranks institutions on expenditure per student, argues Karen Stephenson and Jim Snaith.
The student experience which is most overtly and public ly measured by the National Student Survey (NSS) has become a high-profile measure of university quality and effectiveness. NSS ‘performance’ is a factor in league table position and informed discerning parents of would-be students, increasingly the potential students themselves consult NSS ratings. The government is promoting an increased transparency of things such as staff student ratios (SSRs), employment prospects and NSS ratings as part of a student first and student choice agenda.
In many ways this is the “best of times” for students and choice. It is difficult to argue with the efficacy of potential customers having the maximum information available when they make their ‘product selection’. Within the Coalition government and the Department of Business, Innovation & Skills which oversees the higher education (HE) sector, there appears to be an “epoch of belief” that the ‘market’ and student choice of which ‘the student experience’ is a driver will move UK higher education forward into some better place. One must assume the ambition is to move towards a better place because an articulated aim to move towards a worse place might be difficult to rationalise. The more wizened among us may suspect this is not the “season of light” that the coalition would have us believe and for those working in the sector it may not feel like “the spring of hope.”
The NSS asks 22 questions and offers students an opportunity to make some general positive or negative comments in their own words. Those involved in managing this process are familiar with the format and the challenge of encouraging students to participate. As can be seen the questionnaire is designed to facilitate a comparison between students in very different institutions. This is a strength and a weakness.
Whether “feedback on my work has been prompt” and the extent to which one agrees or disagrees is clearly an element of one’s student experience which can be compared between institutions. These aspects of experience can be directly linked to the quality of local academic management and in this sense the NSS has a useful role to play. However the shortcoming of this questionnaire is that the perception of individual students is limited by their situation, horizons and peer group. The general ‘experience’ of being a student at Warwick, Durham, Bristol or Bath is clearly different in texture to the student experience at East London, Bolton or Edge Hill. That difference is likely to be even wider for students undertaking an undergraduate foundation or top-up degree at South Essex College, Cornwall College, Blackburn College or Doncaster College.
The myth that the NSS supports, is that student experience is comparable. ‘Diversity’ is often a word used with an intended positive connotation. However, the increasing diversity in UK education is more like a set of developing chasms between students who attend different HEIs. This developing scenario characterised by division is increasingly a mirror of that which exists in the United States of America. In this HE world the divisions are naked and institutional status, price/cost and student experience are clearly delineated. Ivy League (Harvard, Yale, Penn) which charge annual tuition fees of $36,0003,$40,5004 and $42,0985 respectively, operate in a separate sphere to more modest institutions such as Slippery Rock University, and Rowen University which charge tuition fees of $4,2826, and $4,3237 respectively. The experience a student enjoys at Ivy League institutions such as Princeton, Brown and Cornell is simply not comparable to the experience of a student at Slippery Rock or Clarke universities.
It is this lack of comparability of experience which the NSS masks. In last month’s article of University Business (August 2011, Issue 43) we drew attention to the contrasting student staff ratios and expenditure per student.
The spend per student excludes the cost of academic staff and these are already counted in the SSR. The spend is calculated by identifying the amount of money that an institution spends providing a subject. This is divided by the volume of students learning the subject to derive this measure. Added to this figure is the amount of money the institution has spent on academic services such as library and computing facilities over the past two years, divided by the total volume of students enrolled at the university in those years. The maximum spend is indicated by the number ten. The lower numbers indicate what proportion is being spent in comparison to the maximum.
It is worth noting that the differences in spend are not simply the differentials of fee charging, £7,500 or £9,000, which have featured so prominently in recent media coverage. With reference to the top and bottom ten HEIs sorted by expenditure per student, it can be seen that students attending any of the top ten have at least double the amount of money spent on their experience in comparison to students attending any of the bottom ten.
With some students having an experience which costs more than double that which others have, and these league tables do not include the cost (much lower cost) of providing an undergraduate qualification via further education (FE), the student experience cannot be ‘comparable’. The experience of a student at Cambridge, Bristol or Warwick is not comparable with the experience gained at Edge Hill, Bolton or Staffordshire.
In addition the best resourced institutions admit students with a different entry trajectory as indicated by the entry tariffs. This means that academically accomplished individuals with honed study skills mix and compete with other people who have similar abilities, get more money spent on them and have access to more academics. The opposite occurs at the other end of the league table. A gap at the beginning of the course grows bigger as the course progresses and the gap in experience turns into a chasm.
A primary differential factor (not the only factor) is the resource, or to be more candid, money. It may not be palatable but it would be more honest to acknowledge that in this place at this time there is not a ‘comparability’ of experience between students who are in so many ways inhabiting different worlds.
Karen Stephenson, Partner at legal firm Veale Wasbrough Vizards and Jim Snaith, Head of Department of Business Studies, London South Bank University.