Percentage drop in university and college students content with courses - study

The percentage of university and college students satisfied with their course has dropped for the first time in years, an annual survey has found.

Some 84% of final-year students said they were content with the overall quality of their courses, down from the record 86% of the previous three years.

The Higher Education Funding Council for England (HEFCE), who carried out the National Student Survey (NSS), disputed year-on-year comparisons due to changes on the questionnaire.

Meanwhile a boycott of the survey coordinated by the National Union of Students over tuition fees appeared to have some impact - with around 304,000 respondents taking part this year, compared with 312,000 in 2016. 

Professor Madeleine Atkins, HEFCE chief executive, said: "The NSS continues to be the largest and most authoritative survey of its kind in the UK.

"Its role in gathering crucial evidence about the student experience in higher education has been enhanced this year by new questions on student engagement and updated questions to reflect the latest approaches to learning and teaching.

"The 2017 results show that students provide particularly positive feedback on the quality of teaching and on learning opportunities.

"Institutions will also, however, be considering carefully how they can continue to improve assessment and feedback, and their broader engagement with students."

Professor Sir David Bell, chairman of the UK Student Information Advisory Group, said: "These excellent results show that our universities and colleges continue to offer a high-quality experience for their students.

"The revised survey which has been run in 2017 offers new insights on student engagement, a crucial component of a successful experience in higher education."

Of the 460 institutions included in the "satisfaction" part of the questionnaire, 44 of them are listed as being significantly better than their benchmark - a score deemed to reflect the sector average satisfaction levels but adjusted to reflect the mix of students and subjects at the institution.

The figures showed 60 of the 460 were significantly worse than their benchmark.

Of those in the Russell Group of universities - considered the UK's best institutions - two of the 16 included in the survey scored significantly worse than their benchmarks.

They are the London School of Economics and Political Science, and Edinburgh University.

One, Leeds University, is considered significantly better than its benchmark.

A Russell Group spokesman said: "Collectively, Russell Group universities included in the NSS figures this year have continued to outperform the sector as a whole.

"Our universities continue to invest millions of pounds in improving the teaching, facilities and services available to our students.

"This is the first year that some of these questions have been asked as part of the NSS and the overall picture is complicated by the impact of the boycott pursued by the NUS."

Universities Minister Jo Johnson said: "While overall student satisfaction remains high, we know there is significant variation in teaching quality and outcomes both within and between providers.

"There is more to do to ensure that students and taxpayers investing heavily in our higher education system secure value for money from it.

"That is why we have created a new regulator, the Office for Students, that will systematically hold universities to account for teaching quality and student outcomes through the Teaching Excellence Framework (TEF).

"In the next phase of performance assessment, the TEF will focus on teaching and outcomes at subject level and we are also developing a powerful new teaching intensity metric informed by contact hours and class sizes."

Referencing the boycott of the survey, NUS vice president (higher education) Amatey Doku said: "The Government wanted to use today's NSS results to allow universities which scored highly to raise fees from £9,000 to over £10,000 by 2020 as part of their draconian reforms to higher education.

"Our membership made it clear to us that they found this unacceptable and demanded we campaign to sever any link between their crude Teaching Excellence Framework (TEF) and a rise in tuition fees, which would hit students hard.

"Figures released today demonstrate just how easily this data can be skewed and how unreliable they are as a measure of teaching quality within this framework.

"This serves as a reminder that students are opposed to soaring tuition fees and are ready to use their power to challenge any ill-thought changes to the sector which will ultimately see them losing out.

"We will continue to call for the link between fees and surveys like the NSS to be cut, engaging students' unions across the country to do the same."

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