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Q&As for Universities / Colleges

What is the National Student Survey (NSS)?

The NSS is a high-profile annual census of nearly half a million students across the UK. Conducted annually since 2005, it is an established survey and produces useful data to help universities/colleges and Students' unions (associations or guilds) identify areas of success and areas for enhancement. It also provides helpful information for prospective students deciding what and where to study. The survey runs across all publicly funded higher education providers in England, Wales, Northern Ireland, and Scotland, as well as private/alternative providers in England with specific course designation for new students. Additionally, further education colleges in England and Northern Ireland, and Further Education Institutions (FEIs) in Wales with directly funded HE students are eligible to participate.

The survey gathers feedback from eligible students who are mainly at the end of their studies. They are asked to respond to 27 single choice questions relating to various aspects of their course. They are also given the opportunity to make open-ended positive and negative comments on their overall student experience at their university/college.

Why is the NSS conducted?

The NSS is conducted for three main reasons;

  1. To inform student choice - it provides the opportunity for current students to tell future students what they think about the quality of their course
  2. To provide information to enhance the student experience – universities/colleges use the results to help improve their courses and facilities for current and future students
  3. To support public accountability - the survey is also a mechanism for the general public to be provided with information about UK higher education.

How will the results be used?

The NSS results are made available to prospective students through the Discover Uni website, which is designed to help them make the important decision of where and what they want to study in higher education. The results of the NSS are also used by universities/colleges themselves to identify what is going well, but also where improvements can be made, to enhance the overall learning experience for current and future students.

The OfS publishes overall results on its website which can be downloaded, however open comments data is not published and is only seen by your university/college.

What NSS data can be used for marketing purposes?

Universities/colleges may wish to use their NSS results in marketing materials, to promote particular courses or the provider as a whole. This is permitted, but there are several restrictions depending on the type and quality of the data being shared.

The publication thresholds (a minimum 50 per cent response rate and at least 10 students) must be adhered to at all levels. Any results below this threshold must not be published.

NSS results from published data may be used in marketing materials and attributed to the NSS, providing the above-mentioned publication thresholds are met.

NSS results from unpublished data such as optional bank questions or provider specific questions, may also be used in marketing materials, but these may not be attributed to the NSS. However, free text comments should not be used in publicly available materials in order to preserve the anonymity of students. The above-mentioned publication thresholds must be met for the cohort whose results are being published.

Can I use open text comments in marketing materials?

The results of the NSS are subject to the privacy statement, which states that anonymised open text comments are only shared with the relevant university/college or UK funding and regulatory body, or with OfS-approved researchers of sector organisations. Therefore, universities/colleges may not quote open text comments in marketing materials.

Who benefits from the NSS?

Feedback provides universities/colleges with a picture of what the learning experience has been like for students completing their courses in 2020. Universities/colleges and Students' Unions (Associations or Guilds) can use the anonymised data internally to identify areas of strength and weakness, to help effect change, and to bring about enhancements intended to improve the overall student experience. More widely, the survey results inform the higher education quality assurance system to generate information about teaching quality.

Data from the NSS are published on the Discover Uni website. This official site allows comparisons across higher education courses and universities/colleges to help prospective students make informed choices about where and what to study.

The OfS publishes overall results on its website which can be downloaded, however anonymised open comments data is not published and is only seen by your university/college.

What is being asked in the survey?

Core Questions

The survey asks students in their final years to provide feedback on their courses in a nationally recognised format. There are core questions, relating to the following aspects of the student experience:

  • Teaching on my course
  • Learning opportunities
  • Assessment and feedback
  • Academic support
  • Organisation and management
  • Learning resources
  • Learning community
  • Student voice
  • Overall Satisfaction

In addition, students studying NHS subjects will be asked questions about their placements. If a student is on a degree apprenticeship or a higher apprenticeship at levels 6 or 7, they may be asked some questions about their training programme.

Open Comments

Students are also given the opportunity to give positive and/or negative comments on their experience as a whole at their university/college. If comments are provided, these will be passed on anonymously to the university/college to help them identify where their strengths lie and also how they can make improvements. Please note that the open-ended questions are optional and there is a maximum word limit of 4,000 characters. Students may also choose to send additional comments by email.

To preserve their anonymity and that of others, students are asked not to make comments that:

  • could enable them to be identified as an individual;
  • name individuals; or
  • make references that could identify another individual, e.g. a course leader or head of department.

The National Student Survey Questionnaire

Optional Questions

Universities/colleges may choose up to six banks of optional questions and may include up to two additional questions specific to the provider. Providers are asked to agree with students' unions their choice of optional banks of questions for inclusion

These questions are appended to the 27 core questions. Students will only be asked these additional questions after they have completed the core questionnaire online. Completion of these questions is not obligatory, and if a student declines to do so, their answers for the core NSS questions will still be submitted. The answers to these questions will only be provided to the student's university/college and will not be made publicly available.

Do all students answer the same questions?

The NSS consists of 27 questions and two open-response questions - the National Student Survey Questionnaire can be found here. All students will be asked these core questions. If students are studying NHS subjects, they will also be asked questions about their placements. A student's university/college may choose to ask some optional questions as well, which may be specific to that university/college.

Who is eligible to complete the NSS?

Participation in the survey is compulsory for universities and colleges as follows:

  • In England, all providers (higher education providers and further education colleges) registered and regulated by the OfS will be expected to participate in the NSS as part of their ongoing conditions of registration.
  • In Northern Ireland, NSS participation is a condition of funding as set out in the financial memoranda between universities and the Department for the Economy (Northern Ireland). Further education colleges in Northern Ireland take part in the NSS to meet requirements of the Revised Operating Model for Quality Assurance.
  • In Scotland, participation is a condition of the Scottish Funding Council's funding for higher education providers.
  • In Wales, all regulated and/or funded providers are expected to participate in the NSS to ensure that the views of the diverse student body are represented, in line with their statutory responsibility to help safeguard against discrimination and promote equality, and the outcomes inform our regulatory responsibilities.

All students studying on courses leading to undergraduate credits or qualifications (such as Bachelor's Degrees, Foundation Degrees, Higher Education Certificates and Diplomas) will be surveyed in their final year of study.

In addition, students on more flexible part-time programmes (whose final year cannot be easily predicted) will normally be surveyed during their fourth year of study. Students who have withdrawn from study during their final year will be included in the survey as their feedback is equally valuable. Unless otherwise removed, students who have repeated a year or have changed their course arrangements but were originally expected to graduate in 2020 will still be surveyed in the current year. Students who were already surveyed in 2019 will not be surveyed in 2020.

For more detailed eligibility criteria, click here.

How can students participate in the NSS?

All eligible students will be contacted by Ipsos MORI, by email or telephone.

They will be asked for some personal data in order to verify that they are eligible to take part. If their personal information is not accurate, we may re-contact them to validate their response. Once they have completed the survey, they should not be contacted again or receive further reminders from Ipsos MORI.

The online survey is linked to a live database of eligible students, which is updated on a regular basis. If students continue to receive reminders after they have completed the survey, this may be because we could not match the details they supplied to those submitted by their provider, or because there was some overlap between when they submitted their response and when we re-contacted them. We will attempt to contact students by email, then if we have no response, by telephone.

Will student responses be confidential?

Responses to the survey are strictly confidential, and all responses are anonymised before they are shared with the university/college to ensure individuals cannot be identified.

Who runs the NSS?

The NSS is run by Ipsos MORI and commissioned by the Office for Students (OfS), on behalf of the UK funding and regulatory bodies - the Department for Economy Northern Ireland (DfENI), the Higher Education Funding Council for Wales (HEFCW), and the Scottish Funding Council (SFC).

How can staff contribute to the NSS, and why is their help important?

University/college staff are often best placed to communicate the benefits and importance of the survey. They can speak directly with students about how the results will be used by those looking to progress to higher education and how they are used to improve the student experience at the university/college more generally. It is crucial that university/college staff stress objectivity in speaking about the NSS because of the way the results will be used by prospective students, universities/colleges, SUs, and other stakeholders.

Why is it important to meet the reporting thresholds?

In order for results to be made publicly available, a threshold of both 10 respondents and a 50 per cent response rate must be met overall and by subject. NSS data remains an important tool for helping prospective students make decisions about where and what to study. The higher the response rate, the greater the likelihood of course-level data being made publicly available to these students.

What should I do if an eligible student is unable to complete the survey?

Please speak to the main NSS contact at your university/college who will be able to check the list of eligible students. They should contact us through the 'Upload Sample Data' area of the NSS Extranet including the student's learner number and identifier (HUSID/STUDENT_ID [NI Colleges only]/LearnRefNumber).

Do not email any individual information to the NSS inbox; individual data must only be transferred through the NSS Extranet.

What is inappropriate influence?

Universities/colleges can remind students to complete the NSS and to consider their responses carefully. However, encouraging students to respond in a way which does not reflect their genuine perceptions of their experience is not acceptable. Staff must not explicitly instruct students on how to complete the survey, such as explaining the meanings of questions or the NSS scale. In particular, the NSS questionnaire as administered by Ipsos MORI should not be used among eligible students in the same academic year in which they will be invited to participate in the survey by Ipsos MORI. No links should be made between the NSS responses and league tables, or the perceived value of students' degrees.

It is crucial that survey promotion is neutral and that:

  • Students are targeted equally so that each eligible student is given a chance to express their views on their experience;
  • Students feel free to give honest feedback about their experiences without their responses being influenced by their university/college;
  • Students must not be asked to complete the survey while a member of staff is taking them through it or overseeing their responses; they should not be made to feel that their responses are being monitored;
  • Students must not be forced to complete the survey, or made to feel that there will be consequences if they do not complete it; and
  • Students must not be encouraged or asked to respond in a way which does not reflect their experience, e.g. they cannot be told to not use the neutral 'Neither agree nor disagree' response.

Any allegations of inappropriate attempts to influence the outcomes of the NSS are taken extremely seriously by the UK funding and regulatory bodies. This is to ensure that the integrity of the NSS data is maintained.

A document outlining the OfS's (on behalf of the UK funding and regulatory bodies) process for handling concerns regarding attempts by university/college to inappropriately influence results is available here. Further guidance is also available in the NSS 2020 Good Practice Guide.

If you are uncertain about any aspect of these guidelines, please contact the person responsible for the NSS at your university/college, or you can email us directly at the NSS helpline and we would be happy to provide further advice or clarification.

How can I boost the response rate for my subject/course?

There are a number of ways to promote the NSS within your subject/course, including:

  • Lecture shout-outs to final-year students
  • Arrange voluntary computer sessions
  • Add a feature about the NSS to Intranet sites/Moodle
  • Discuss the NSS via subject/course social media sites
  • Send targeted email communications to eligible students
  • Offer internal prize draws to eligible students

When should I hold dedicated NSS completion sessions?

Dedicated sessions can be held at any time during the survey fieldwork. Students can log onto and select the option to 'Enter the Survey'. These sessions must be voluntary for students to attend. You could also arrange sessions to coincide with the delivery of their personalised email invitations:

  • Survey week 1: arrange dedicated sessions on Friday or the following Monday
  • Survey week 2: arrange dedicated sessions on Tuesday or Wednesday
  • Survey week 3: arrange dedicated sessions on Monday

Can we send email reminders to students?

Sending targeted emails that invite students to complete the survey at can be useful. However, we would recommend against too many reminders as this may have an adverse effect. Please ensure that you coordinate these emails with the Ipsos MORI Fieldwork Schedule to ensure they do not overlap with our activities. The email content should be signed off by a senior member of staff. All Communications and/or provider marketing materials must not attempt to sway the opinion of students in any way (please refer to the NSS 2020 Good Practice Guide).

Please liaise with the Main NSS contacts at your university/college to ensure that emails are only being sent to eligible students.

When can we display marketing materials?

It is recommended to display promotional materials around your university/college before the launch of the survey on 6 January 2020. This is to ensure it is visible to students and fresh in their minds before they receive their email invitations. The survey website will remain live until 30 April 2020. Please continue to display the materials until this date.

How will NSS data be used in the TEF?

TEF awards are decided by an independent panel of experts made up of academics, students and experts on employment and widening participation in higher education. Their assessments use holistic judgement to weigh the evidence available from data and from a detailed statement from each university or college.

The NSS is one source of the evidence available to them: the data include how many students continue their course from one year to the next, graduate-level employment outcomes, as well as students' views about their experience gathered in the annual NSS.

The TEF takes into account the mix of student characteristics, entry qualifications and subjects at each higher education provider so assessment is based on what a provider should be achieving within this context.

For more information about how the NSS data will be used in the TEF, please see:

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