National Student Survey 2014

Well if the second week of August wasn’t  busy enough already, with A-level results and the onset of clearing, then just to give something else for HE wonks and award leaders to think about, along comes this year’s National Student Survey results.

NSS-results-2014-letterbox (1)

As HEFCE announce, student satisfaction has risen nationally once again, with 86% of students saying they are satisfied and “satisfaction has either improved since 2013 or stayed the same in each of the seven categories covered by the survey”.

Professor Madeleine Atkins, HEFCE Chief Executive, said:

‘I’m delighted to see record levels of student satisfaction this year, as well as marked improvements in satisfaction with assessment and feedback over the last decade.

‘The NSS is the largest survey of its kind in the UK. Over the last 10 years it has helped over 2 million students to make their voices heard about the things that matter to them, and has been fundamental to driving change in our universities and colleges.

‘In a period of technological advance, internationalisation and funding reforms, the NSS will continue to enable students’ views to be heard and to stimulate innovation and excellence in teaching and learning in our universities and colleges.’

HEFCE also provide links to recent review of the NSS which considers how effective the current survey is and makes recommendations for changes, primarily around adding questions on “student engagement”.  The report also talks about methodological issues related to the use of the survey, stating:

The NSS results can be used responsibly in the following ways with proper caution:

  • To track the development of responses over time
  • To report absolute scores at local and national levels
  • To compare results with agreed internal benchmarks
  • To compare the responses of different student groups, including equity target groups
  • To make comparisons, with appropriate vigilance and knowledge of statistical variance, between programmes in the same subject area at different institutions
  • To help stimulate change and enhance dialogue about teaching and learning.

However, they cannot be used responsibly in these ways:

  • To compare subject areas, e.g. Art & Design vs. Engineering, within an institution unless adjustments are made for typical subject area differences nationally
  • To compare scores on different aspects of the student experience (between different scales, e.g. assessment vs. teaching) in an unsophisticated way
  • To compare whole institutions without taking account of sources of variation such as subject mix and student characteristics
  • To construct league tables of programmes or institutions that do not allow for the fact that the majority of results are not materially different.

Academics and other commentators  have long been critical of the usefulness of the NSS, and on publication, HEFCE asked via Twitter whether it was fit for purpose….


The Times Higher ran an article on views from the sector on the usefulness of the NSS, which claimed that one lecturer at a university in the West of England described the NSS as “about as scientifically useful as TripAdvisor is for travellers”.

Nonetheless, it is the instrument we currently have, and so for the coming year as an institution we will be looking at our results and how to use them effectively.

At institutional level we have seen another improvement – just like the sector overall, we improve on a yearly basis.


While acknowledging the difficulties of comparing dissimilar subjects, it’s relatively easy for us to benchmark subject groups against other institutions using the full data-set from HEFCE.

We will also look at those individual awards that appear as outliers in our results – those awards that gained 100% overall satisfaction (I can’t name them all as not all the data can be used publicly) should be a source of ideas to those whose results were outliers at the other end of the scale.

Staff employed at HEFCE-funded HEIs

HEFCE have just released data on characteristics of staff employed at UK HEIs, with a nifty little interactive tool to allow you to plot the graphs. Sadly it doesn’t;t allow you to add multiple categories together or anything truly interactive,but there are some inetrestign (and in some case, I guess, inevitable) results.

If we look at gender, then the more senior you are, and the higher up the pay scale, the more likely you are to be male. this applies in senior leadership roles, but also in academic roles.


If we look at ethnicity, then the higher up the greasy pole, the more likely you are to be white.


For those universities who are working toward the Equality Challenge Unit Race Equality Charter Mark, or indeed initiatives such as Athena Swan, then it might be interesting to consider recruitment and development policies and institutional results against the national trend, otherwise as a sector we are likely to reinforce the image of senior roles being for middle aged white guys (disclaimer – I am one).

To really get a better reflection, then an individual institution could compare its gender and ethnicity profile against both the general population and also against its local and student population. Certainly from a point of view of BME student attainment, there is often a significant difference in the diversity mix of the staff who lead and teach in universities and the student body.

For another view on these results, have a look at the registrarism blog by Paul Greatrix.

Learning and Teaching Conference 2014

This year’s University L&T conference, run as part of StaffFest2014 had as its theme Student success: raising attainment. Attendance was better than it has been in previous years, which was good news, but more of this later.

An introduction and welcome by the VC, Prof Michael Gunn, was followed by an introduction by me, where I looked at our league table position, emphasising the importance of student attainment. Using the strapline “we can be better than this”, I also introduced some of the data around attainment of BME students, before summarising the outline for the day and introducing our speakers.

Prof Liz Thomas

Liz spoke about Inclusive Pedagogy, introducing the 4 outcome indicators used by HEFCE – achievement of a degree; classification; employment, and graduate outcome. She explored the key themes of engagement:

  • Active and collaborative learning
  • Participation in challenging acadmei activities
  • Formative communication with academic staff
  • Involvement in enriching educational experiences
  • Feeling legitimated and supported by university learning communities

Successful engagement involves an overlap between social, service and academic spheres, as below:


Liz also introduced data on differential attainment based on gender, ethnicity and disability, as well as looking at the impact of students from the different quintiles of the Polar3 classification.

Liz emphasised the importance of engaging all staff, not just academic, and said that the partnerships between staff and students were a key strategic enabler.


Dr Winston Morgan

Focussing in now on a specific issue, Winston took us through ideas on how to solve the attainment gap between BMR (or BAME) students and white students.

As well as presenting plenty of data to illustrate the existence of an attainment gap, Winston presented key questions to ask about our institution, before we start to understand how to solve the gap:


The main factors that determine or drive the gap are:

  • Prior knowledge
  • Student age on entry
  • Performance of white stdunets
  • Other more difficult to identify factors (academic confidence of BAME students)

If qualifications on entry are the driver of the attainment gap, then the institution must change either the admissions policy or change the L&T practices to suit the admissions policy. For example, on admission policy, students must be selected by specific subjects and grades, not just UCAS points When admitting students form BTEC backgrounds, then the entry tariff must be raised by 20-30% to allow for their previous learning styles. An increase of 30-40% should be considered for the tariff from access courses.

If the admissions policy can’t be changed, then Winston proposed changing the L&T practices to sit the admissions, by adopting the practices of BTEC and Access programmes, ie, fewer exams, multiple assessments, lower SSRs. Finally, provide the skills so that students can cope with the challenges and assessments of university.

Winston concluded by looking at the “identity gap”, as shown below:


Followed by messages to close the racial identity gap:


This was a challenging talk, and even though Winston spoke for longer than intended, I wasn’t going to ask him to stop! Over the next few days I heard so many positive comments about what a great talk it was.

Nonetheless, it does leave us with some significant challenges, some of which the BME project group can look into, but the key questions will be:

  • How much do we know about the issue at Staffordshire?
  • How could we change our admissions policy?
  • How could we change our L&T practices?
  • How could we address the issue of racial identity, and do we have role models in senior posts?

Paul Mangnall

The final keynote speaker was Paul Mangnall, Principal of Stoke on Trent 6th Form College. Paul provided a quick run through the processes used in schools (and in FE) maintain and ensure consistency.

Paul ran through the processes of teaching observations, noting that one observation a year led to a “cup final” scenario, with possible over preparation, unrepresentative performances, and increased pressure to perform. Instead, the process now involved observing a member of staff twice over a three day window.

  • The formal lesson observations were operationlised by:
  • Each member of staff formally observed twice per year
  • Observation window – any lesson to be observed within a 3 day period
  • Key strengths and areas for improvement identified for “close the loop”
  • Holistic view – included student progress against target grade, assessment, and student files
  • Trained observation team, formal moderation process
  • Links to departmental and individual performance management targets

The interesting thing about Pauls’ talk was that he described the same kind of observation processes that are used already in other universities. There is clearly scope for us to learn from other sectors and institutions.

Plenary sessions in the afternoon were on: the work of the BME project group; the Paul Hamlyn ”What Works” project group; the new personal tutoring policy;, and supporting students through the enabling centre. The final question time provided an opportunity for speakers to respond to queries about BME attainment, transitions to HE, electronic assessment and digital literacy

In conclusion, I was really pleased with the conference and the way in whuch so many people really engaged with the important theme of improving student attainment.

The only question I have is this: since we are a teaching-led organisation, then why weren’t all of our academic staff in attendance? It was particularly interesting to see who went to the leadership event three days later instead.

For future years we’ll be working hard to make this event much harder to avoid – with topics that are important for everyone who teaches or who supports teaching, then this shouldn’t be difficult. Well also work more closely with our faculties to engage them earlier in the planning process.

Shifts and Trends in UK Higher Education

A new publication from HEFCE, ‘Higher education in England 2014: Analysis of latest shifts and trends’, is an overview of recent shifts and longer-term trends, building a picture of publicly-funded higher education in England in 2014 and a sense of how it got to where it is. It also considers possible further changes and continuities in the year ahead.

Available to download are the main report and key facts sheet, together with the data-set used.

This blog post will not consider the sections in the report on research and knowledge exchange, nor on financial health of institutions, but will focus on student enrolments, subjects and growth and decline of parts of the market. I will also ask why we are not following the trends.

Full Time Student Numbers

The information presented shows a recovery in full time undergraduate numbers in the sector with an 8% increase in 2013-14 compared with 2012-13, however there are significant drops in the numbers of part time entrants and also entrants to undergraduate programmes other than first degrees, with a 38% decline in students on foundation degrees.


Interestingly, there has been growth in students  registered on full time HE qualifications delivered in FE colleges.

Part Time Student Numbers

Unsurprisingly, the number of entrants to part time undergraduate awards has fallen significantly, with the biggest decline in awards other than first degrees.


Entry to Postgraduate provision

There has been little significant change in UK/EU entrants to postgraduate provision, as seen in the  graph below, but as the report highlights, in 2015, we will have the first potential entry to these awards by students who have gone through their undergraduate programmes under the current fee regime. Since a high percentage of current postgraduate students have no financial support and are funding their own studies, it will be interesting to see how the next generation will view the benefits of postgraduate study. They could be averse to taking on even more debt, or alternatively may be happy to do so, having made an assessment of the benefit of further study balanced against the increased level of indebtedness, much of which may never be paid back.


When considering entry to postgraduate provision, this university needs to be very aware of international recruitment – recent visa changes have potentially had a negative effect on how HE in the UK is perceived. To quote the report:

International students have contributed a great deal to the growth of postgraduate education. They make up over a quarter of all postgraduate numbers, but in certain subject areas they are more than half of the cohort, which makes parts of the sector vulnerable to volatility in this market.

A quick look at the growth and decline of international markets is instructive:


Recent news around visas has potentially had a major effect on recruitment from India and Pakistan, whereas demand from China is booming.

Student Characteristics

The report shows that entry rate has increased for all students, and that for those who are the most disadvantaged, there has been a greater increase. However, there is still a large gap in participation between students from the most advantaged and most disadvantaged neighborhoods, and that students from the most advantaged areas were more likely to enter high-tariff institutions.

Interestingly, the number of facilitating subjects studied at A-Level  (where the Russell Group de?nes ‘facilitating subjects’ as subjects that are required more often than others for entry to undergraduate courses. They note that mathematics and further mathematics, English literature, physics,biology, chemistry, geography, history, and classical and modern languages can all be seen as facilitating subjects.) have an effect on likelihood of acceptance to university, and this is exaggerated fro those with lower A-level grades – study of facilitating subjects seems to be of more significance:


So the message here seems to be – choose “traditional” A-level subjects, particularly if you are a “weaker” student.


HEFCE clearly supports STEM subjects and others of strategic importance such as modern foreign languages. This report makes comments on both of these, and for us the section on STEM is important.

94. In 2013-14, positive trends in STEM applications translated to 98,000 acceptances via UCAS, the highest level recorded. Engineering and technology acceptances bounced back by 6 per cent (2,000) after a decline, returning to 2010-11 peak levels. Acceptances to computer sciences in 2013-14 were higher than at any point since 2003-04, having increased by 12 per cent (2,000) compared with the previous year.

95. UCAS applications data for the 2014 cycle suggest continued growth in engineering and technology subjects, with applications rising by 11 per cent compared with the previous cycle. Computer sciences have seen the biggest increase in applications, of 13 per cent.

96. Increased entries to STEM subjects at A-level suggest that there is scope for further growth in higher education in the coming years. Although total numbers of A-level entries remained ?at between 2011-12 and 2012-13, the numbers of entries to STEM subjects increased by 6,000 (2 per cent)

As we look to reviewing our portfolio, for me this is a strong message that we need to ensure we are ready to grow in our areas of strength such as computer sciences, and recognise the potential in other science and engineering subjects.

Recruitment by location and tariff

Again, interestingly, this report shows that the West Midlands one of the areas of highest growth (3%) for full time undergraduate entrants to HE, but at the same time saw a significant drop (48%) in part time entrants.

The HEIs which saw significant growth in entrants  tended to be specialist institutions or those whose students have high average tariff scores. Declines of more than 10 per cent took place at 28 HEIs and 17 further education colleges. The majority of the HEIs seeing these levels of decline were those where entrants had low or medium average tariff scores.


There is a lesson for us here maybe, as raised in the VC’s Blog this week – do we need to do more work to raise our entry tariff, to compete against the HEIs we think of as our natural competitors, and to have a potential benefit to our league table position?


A detailed and comprehensive picture of higher education in England, which provide some useful points for reflection. My key points (and these are entirely personal, not the views of the institution) would be:

  • international recruitment – which markets are we operating in?
  • portfolio review  – emphasis on STEM provision?
  • entry tariff – can we raise this?












Information for Prospective Students

The current narrative about higher education is that we need to provide more information, to students, prospective students, government and other stakeholders. A central plank of 2011 White Paper was that comparable data would be made readily available:

Each university will now make the most requested items available on its website, on an easily comparable basis. These items, together with information about course charges, are called the Key Information Set (KIS) and will be available on a course by course basis, by September 2012,although many of the items of information are already being made available prior to their incorporation in the KIS.

And so we embarked on the work of editing and checking the data to go into KIS, and duly inserted course widgets on website pages. Cue howls of despair, as people started to realise this opened up a few problems. How did some universities honestly say they were teaching that many hours per week? How come the student survey data was not at award level but potentially misleadingly at JACS3? And the same for employability data? Why did the average contact hours drop if you included a placement year?

Anyway, a new report commissioned by HEFCE and reported in this week’s Times Higher, seems to show making lots of information available is not necessarily working. The key findings of the report show:

The decision-making process is complex, personal and nuanced, involving different types of information, messengers and influences over a long time. This challenges the common assumption that people primarily make objective choices following a systematic analysis of all the information available to them at one time.

Greater amounts of information do not necessarily mean that people will be better informed or be able to make better decisions.

(from HEFCE)

From the Times Higher article:

Beth Steiner, a senior higher education policy adviser at Hefce, told a workshop last month that the findings had “raised several questions in our minds about Unistats and how fit for purpose it might be”.

She said that one solution could be a system that allows students to select “different levels of detail” about courses. A Hefce spokesman said the council was not anticipating any changes to Unistats before 2017.

Ms Steiner said that Hefce had assumed that “if you give them [prospective students] lots and lots of information, they will take that information and they will systematically work through it and they will make a reasoned analysis and decision based on that analysis”.

“We fully own up to that assumption, which we have made in the past – but it’s clearly not realistic,”

But is this really that much of a surprise?

Do people always act as rational consumers when making purchase decisions? There is a lot more at play in the decision-making process for potential students: family connection to a university, locality, sports facilities, type of campus. This list could go on, but importantly contains factors that are not readily reduced to simple numbers. This is summarised in the summary of the report as:

Preferences are often partially-formed and endogenous to social and economic context, and people are rarely fully informed utility maximisers

As I posted on Twitter:

twitter re student choices

This is not to dismiss this work out of hand, there are some important principles in the final summary that anyone involved in providing student information will find interesting. The challenge will be to understand how we can interpret and apply this, at the same time as the  market principles that currently underpin higher education dominate the narrative with some not fully formed ideas about how markets and consumers really operate.