Reflections, student expectations and NSS results 2020

jon scott student expectations nss results 2020

This is part of a monthly guest blog series by Professor Jon Scott. Jon is a higher education consultant with extensive experience in quality assurance and developing practice in learning and teaching. His most recent academic roles were as Professor of Bioscience Education and Pro-Vice-Chancellor (Student Experience) at the University of Leicester.


Wednesday 15th July was a big news day on the higher education front, with four significant news pieces for the sector – including the NSS results 2020. In this month’s blog, we’ll look at some of the key topics from these four items and publications and what they mean for the higher education sector.

What happened on Wednesday 15th July?

Publication of the 2020 NSS results

Firstly on the 15th, the results of the 2020 National Student Survey (NSS) were published, which universities and colleges will have been waiting anxiously for. Given the exceptional levels of disruption to university education, resulting first from the Universities and College Union’s strike action and then the Covid-19 pandemic, the sector must feel very relieved that the rating for overall student satisfaction only dropped by 1% – from 84% to 83%.

Pearson and Wonkhe’s student experiences and expectations survey

The same day also saw the publication of the results of a joint survey run by Pearson and Wonkhe. This survey looked at student experiences of lockdown and the expectations and concerns regarding the coming academic year.

Key challenges for disabled students next academic year

Two further items on the big news day of Wednesday 15th also merit discussion regarding student wellbeing and access. The first of these is the release of the report prepared by the Disabled Students’ Commission (DSC), Three Months to Make a Difference, which identifies key challenges for disabled students in the coming academic year.

The Universities Minister’s statement

And lastly, following on from Education Secretary Gavin Williamson’s statement on ‘tearing up’ the target of a 50% participation rate in higher education, Michelle Donelan, the Universities Minister reflected on making a difference when she stated that it ‘doesn’t matter about looking at which groups don’t get to university’. This potentially casts a very different light on the Access and Participation objectives that the Office for Students (OfS) has set for the sector.

Responses to the 2020 National Student Survey (NSS)

Response rate

Despite the original concerns of higher education providers that the 2020 NSS would be unreliable as a result of the pandemic, the overall response rate only slipped slightly to 68.6% from 71.9% last year. Some 80% of the results were submitted before lockdown.

Furthermore, analysis by the OfS shows that there was no significant difference, in comparison with the trends of previous years, in the responses of those students completing the survey after lockdown.

Key findings

The summary results for the NSS show that the levels of satisfaction under the different headings either remained the same or dropped by one percentage point. The only marked drop in satisfaction for full-time students in England was for the item ‘The course is well organised and running smoothly’, which fell from 70% to 67%. This is probably of no surprise given the levels of disruption this year. Interestingly, this metric did not change for Scotland (68% for both years) and for Wales it only fell by 1% (70 to 69%).

There was also no real change this year in the aspects that have been most challenging for institutions in previous years: 1) assessment and feedback and 2) action taken on student feedback. Other key aspects, such as the quality of the teaching, learning opportunities, and contact with staff were also effectively unchanged this year. Given all the disruption, this provides evidence of the overall commitment of staff to supporting their students.

Key focuses for the higher education sector

Communication between staff and students

In her initial commentary on the NSS outcomes, the Chief Executive of the OfS, Nicola Dandridge, commented on the relatively lower satisfaction rates around course organisation and communication of changes that have been reported for several years, and the importance of managing these aspects going forward. In a previous blog, I reflected on the importance of effective communication at this time of uncertainty.

Connections with staff and the significance of good communications were also highlighted in the Pearson-Wonkhe survey as being important in enabling students to learn effectively online and also chime with the findings from Enlitened. The Pearson-Wonkhe survey ran from mid-June to the beginning of July and explored the current experiences of students during lockdown, as well as their views regarding the prospects for limited face-to-face teaching next term.

Challenges associated with online learning

Students reported that the biggest challenges to transitioning to online learning were managing their wellbeing in the absence of face-to-face contacts, managing their time, and finding suitable places where they could work. It was also clear that loss of key educational skills development and experiences such as access to labs or studios, placement/work opportunities and group work were what students felt they had missed out on the most.

Consequently, 49% of the respondents reported feeling less confident regarding their readiness to progress to the next step in the education or career. A lack of confidence was also flagged in the latest data published by Enlitened.

Safe interaction and socialising

The Pearson-Wonkhe report also flagged the view from students’ unions that universities were focusing their efforts on planning for learning and teaching and not giving enough consideration to how the students would be able to interact and socialise safely.

The unions felt there was an expectation that these important opportunities for building friendships and establishing a sense of community would be provided by the SUs. But in the absence of knowing what the universities’ plans were going to be.

Addressing key challenges for disabled students

Clear and consistent communication, along with effective support provision, was also the strong message in the report Three Months to Make a Difference published by AdvanceHE on behalf of the DSC. Looking at the three months before the start of the next academic year, the report focuses on the challenges facing disabled students.

Particular areas where action is needed include:

  • Supporting disabled students during clearing and ensuring ease of access for funding
  • Facilitating disabled students’ engagement with induction and social activities
  • Ensuring an inclusive approach to blended learning with embedded accessibility across the learning materials

All of these areas will require careful planning by universities. In the case of ensuring that blended learning is fully accessible, there will need to be training for academic staff in preparing the learning materials and ensuring that staff are aware of how to incorporate the accessibility functions on the learning environments.

There will also need to be a carefully planned approach to assessment design to ensure it is fully inclusive. The Disabled Students’ Commission (DSC) notes that taking account of these challenges will require a pro-active response and careful monitoring, particularly given all the other pressures facing university staff in preparing for the coming year.

The debate on value for money continues

Amidst all this reporting activity, it would have been easy to miss Michelle Donelan’s responses to questions in the House of Commons Education Select Committee. All universities are very aware that making a difference in terms of access and participation is much more than simply getting students from disadvantaged backgrounds onto their courses; supporting their successful progression is also critically important.

The sector, though, has been under significant pressure from the OfS to make a difference by boosting the numbers of students coming from those societal groups that show persistently low rates of progression to higher education. The statement by the Universities’ Minister that ‘It doesn’t matter about looking at which groups don’t go to university’ therefore leaves both universities and the OfS in an interesting place.

The qualifying observation that completion and graduate jobs are what matter once again brings the debate on value for money in higher education into focus. The extent to which higher education success should be judged by the salaries earned is a vexed issue that will continue to be contested.

For more from Jon, read last month’s blog. If you have any comments or questions, feel free to contact us or get in touch with Jon directly on Twitter at @jon_scott. You can also find out more about how the Enlitened platform works here.