Less than half of students* at the University of Warwick think the Students’ Union (SU) “effectively represents” their interests, amid other results of the National Student Survey (NSS) released on 3 July.
The figures come as Warwick SU is accused of institutional racism according to a letter from 10 UNISON to SU Trustees that was seen by The Boar. Survey results for the University’s performance also saw improvements from last year.
48% of respondents agreed that Warwick SU “effectively represents students’ academic interests”, which is “significantly below” the 2019 benchmark of 53%. The same occurred last year when 50% of Warwick students approved of the SU’s performance, which was 4% off the benchmark.
Meanwhile, 57% of respondents across universities in England agreed that their SU “effectively” represented them in 2019. The figure was 52% in Scotland, and 59% in both Wales and Northern Ireland.
Higher Education Policy Institute (HEPI) Director Nick Hillman pinpointed this particular statistic and commented: “The scores for satisfaction with student unions are much lower still, yet are generally completely ignored.
“The unimpressive results on student unions should be a wake-up call for the new student union officers that are taking up their posts up and down the UK, for the leadership of the National Union of Students and for higher education institutions and policymakers, who need to give student unions the support they need to thrive and support their members.”
Amid these figures, it recently emerged that Warwick SU “has institutional racism flourishing at its very heart, an unacknowledged issue which is having a far reaching, damaging and demoralising effect on staff”.
In the letter signed by Antonia Mayers, Equality Officer and secretary of the UNISON branch at Warwick, senior leadership in the SU allegedly demonstrated “a culture of ignorance and complacency regarding race matters” and was described as “longstanding exclusively white”.
In response, SU President Liam Jackson told The Boar that “investigations are in progress and these are being conducted by external independent investigators, selected on the basis of their expertise in these matters.”
The unimpressive results on student unions should be a wake-up call for the new student union officers that are taking up their posts up and down the UK
– Nick Hillman
Various measures have been taken, including the appointment of an “independent Equality, Diversity and Inclusion (EDI) consultant” who will review related areas, “whether to do with race, gender, sexuality, religion or other protected characteristics”.
“We take seriously our duty of care for all employees, whether they are members of Unison, any other Union organisation, or not,” Mr Jackson added. “Although shocked, we are extremely thankful that this concern has been highlighted.”
Following the letter were the NSS results which saw a drop in student confidence towards the SU. In contrast, student satisfaction for courses provided by the University of Warwick has seen a rise in the survey.
Overall, 87% of Warwick students* were “satisfied with the quality” of their course, compared to the benchmark of 84%.
The statistic was not “significant above benchmark”, same as last year, but improved on the results from the 2018 NSS which saw 85% of students agree to the aforementioned statement and the equivalent benchmark of 84%.
The figures come as the University fell by 38 places to 63rd for the “student satisfaction” criterion in the Complete University Guide overall rankings for 2020.
Commenting on student satisfaction across universities, Mr Hillman said: “It is good that student satisfaction is rising, if only slightly and not everywhere.
“But as our own surveys show, you need to get underneath the student satisfaction data to really understand the student experience and the National Student Survey is of very limited value in doing that.”
Universities Minister Chris Skidmore also said that he was “delighted to see more students are satisfied with their university course and the quality of teaching they receive”.
“However these results show that there is further to go to ensure every student has a positive academic experience,” he added. “We have a world-leading university sector but we must not get complacent.”
At Warwick, various areas have improved since 2018, no longer rated “slightly below benchmark”. Students agreed that they were able to apply what they have learnt from their course, and marking criteria have been “clear in advance”.
While 76% of Warwick students thought they were heard, 63% agreed that their feedback had been acted on
Moreover, “marking and assessment has been fair”, “sufficient advice and guidance” was received, and “good advice was available” when making study choices.
For both years, the number of students who thought that their course was “intellectually stimulating” and feedback on their work had been “timely” was “significantly above benchmark” at 90% and 78% respectively in 2019.
Some areas that were above the benchmark last year became significantly above this year – students agreed that the course was “well organised and running smoothly” and they felt they were “part of a community of staff and students”.
This was also the case for the category “Student voice”, which evaluates how far students’ feedback was taken into account. While 76% of Warwick students thought they were heard, 63% agreed that their feedback had been acted on.
The University said that the NSS results were “very positively received by Warwick’s students and staff”.
“In particular, the figures show that Warwick students increasingly see that staff value their feedback and are acting on it,” they said.
“That has been key to other successful changes including the higher rates of satisfaction: on assessment and feedback, on learning opportunities, on engaging teaching and on academic support. Clearly the new Personal Tutoring system has been welcomed.
“The continuing dialogue between staff and students that led to these changes will remain crucial, and the University is grateful to all those staff and students who’ve helped make a real difference here.”
The University concluded: “Departments will now evaluate the data further, and will work with students on action planning to continue this positive path. The Review of Assessment will be part of that and we are looking at how to create more flexibility in the curriculum, all of which we hope will mean that we will see more progress next year too.”
The Office for Students (OfS) pinpointed student feedback as an area for improvement across all universities.
Higher education can be a life-changing opportunity for students, but universities and colleges must listen to what students are telling them and make improvements where needed
– Nicola Dandridge
OfS Chief Executive Nicola Dandridge said: “There is still work for universities and colleges to do to ensure that students are provided with clear marking criteria and constructive feedback – key factors in enabling students to reach their potential.
“Higher education can be a life-changing opportunity for students, but universities and colleges must listen to what students are telling them and make improvements where needed.”
In a similar vein, Mr Hillman commented that scores for feedback “are not as high as they could be”, and that “further improvements in this area” have to be made “as a sector”.
He added that the survey “only covers final-year undergraduates, ignores contact hours / workload and is too anodyne to be properly useful as a resource”, as answers were gathered from mostly final year full-time and part-time undergraduate students.
“In my view, it is time for the survey to be completely revamped. Until this happens, there will continue to be no official data on how hard students really work,” Mr Hillman stated.
330,305 students in the UK were surveyed this year, with 72% of students from 403 institutions taking part.
On the nature of the NSS, Ms Dandridge said: “We will continue to develop the National Student Survey, ensuring it remains an invaluable tool for capturing student opinion and driving improvements across the sector – both for the benefit of current students and generations to come.”
Warwick SU President Liam Jackson and President-elect Ben Newsham have been contacted for comment.