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Minimal Covid-19 impact on 2020 NSS results, analysis finds

The vast majority of students were satisfied with their university course in 2020, despite the Covid-19 lockdown from March, a sector-level analysis of the National Student Survey results has found.

Some 83 per cent of respondents to the NSS gave a positive response to the question about overall satisfaction, compared to 84 per cent in 2019. Results for teaching, learning opportunities, assessment and feedback, learning community, learning resources and student voice were identical to 2019.

The responses were collected between January and April of this year, with just over a fifth across the sector made on or after March 11.

Analysis of the results by the Office for Students (OfS) found that at sector level there was a small negative shift in the agreement rate for some questions. However, similar shifts have also been observed in previous years. The majority of the 3,100 comments that mentioned the pandemic were negative but they made up just 1.6 per cent of the total comments.

The OfS concluded that at sector and provider level, there appeared to be “no obvious change in the agreement rate that could be attributed to the impact of Covid 19”. 

Richard Puttock, director of data, foresight and analysis at the OfS, said: “In brief, the analysis shows us that, while there were some variations across the data compared to previous years, there was no evidence that the results had been strongly impacted by the pandemic.”

Responses to the NSS varied across subjects, age, disability and ethnic background.  Among students with a declared disability, 80.6 per cent were satisfied with their course in 2020. For Asian undergraduates the figure was 80.5 per cent, while for Black students it was 80.4 and for mixed heritage students it was 79.7.  When categorised by age, the lowest positive response rate was for 21 to 24 year olds at 81 per cent. All these groups’ results were significantly below benchmark.

Variations from benchmarks were most common in the Learning Community scale. Outside of that, question 15 - 'The course is well organised and running smoothly' - also stood out as having agreement rates for student groups that often differ from their benchmarks.

Patterns of agreement to the various statements for UK and overseas students were broadly similar. Fewer significant differences from benchmarks were found for the overseas domiciled students, but this is at least partly due to the smaller populations.

The response rate was 69 per cent, slightly down on 2019’s 72 per cent, with 396 universities, colleges and alternative providers taking part.

The analysis shows that overall satisfaction levels were most likely to be below benchmark among students studying computing, design and creative and performing arts, engineering and technology, media journalism and communications, and subjects allied to medicine. Perhaps surprisingly, in 2020 satisfaction among students on full-time programmes were more likely to be below benchmark than among those on part-time courses.

“Ensuring that students are empowered is crucial to delivering the high-quality academic experience that all students deserve,” said Puttock. “I would urge universities and colleges to carefully consider the feedback that students have given them this year. Listening closely to feedback, and acting on it where appropriate, will be particularly important this year as universities and colleges continue to adapt their provision in light of the pandemic.”

Universities minister Michelle Donelan has ordered a “radical, root and branch” review of the NSS, claiming that since its inception in 2005, it has “exerted a downwards pressure on standards” within higher education.

Announcing the review, the government said: “There is valid concern from some in the sector that good scores can more easily be achieved through dumbing down and spoon-feeding students, rather than pursuing high standards and embedding the subject knowledge and intellectual skills needed to succeed in the modern workplace.”

It also raised concerns that the results of the NSS “do not correlate well with other, more robust, measures of quality, with some of the worst courses in the country, in terms of drop-out rates and progression to highly skilled employment, receiving high NSS scores”.