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National Student Survey to undergo “radical” review as part of higher education reforms

The UK’s National Student Survey (NSS) is to experience a “radical, root and branch” reform as part of changes to higher education announced by the government. 

In a bid to reduce red tape, the government has released a policy paper outlining their proposals to reduce “bureaucratic burden in research, innovation and higher education”. 

The NSS had “exerted a downwards pressure on standards within our higher education system” as “good scores can more easily be achieved through dumbing down and spoon-feeding students, rather than pursuing high standards and embedding…subject knowledge and intellectual skills”, according to Times Higher Education

The government fears students will use NSS results to pick their courses, meaning that “easy and entertaining” courses could receive higher popularity than “robust and rigorous” courses. 

The government has asked the Office for Students (OfS) to complete a review of the NSS by the end of 2020, with the aim of devising a reformed survey to “stand the test of time” and provide reliable data “without depending on a universal annual sample”. 

Universities Minister Michelle Donelan announced these changes as part of a wide-ranging speech on higher education. 

Other measures announced included a reduction in the fee that English universities pay to the OfS and other sector bodies, changes to data and how UK Research and Innovation (UKRI) is streaming its grant funding processes. 

The government has asked the Office for Students to complete a review of the NSS by the end of 2020, with the aim of devising a reformed survey to “stand the test of time” and provide reliable data

Donelan told Universities UK that the government was looking at universities to “continue to uphold your duty of care and responsibility to student and staff health and wellbeing” as “campuses can only stay open if the guidance is followed”.

In light of increased unemployment as a result of the coronavirus pandemic, Donelan stated that the “labour market today is made up of people who do multiple careers in one lifetime” and universities do not “enable readily accessible bitesized learning for people looking to upskill and reskill”. 

Donelan also announced that she had worked with the OfS to provide “Student Premium funding worth around £256 million”, some of which could go towards mental health support. 

Universities were also told not to “feel pressured” to take part in membership awards that seek to “validate an organisation’s performance in particular areas” as they can “generate large volumes of bureaucracy”. 

These schemes include Advance HE’s SWAN Charter, which provides awards to departments based on their gender equality performance. 

The policy paper has stated that the government has asked the OfS, UKRI and National Institute for Health Research (NIHR) to ensure they “place no weight upon the presence or absence of such markers or scheme memberships in any of their regulatory or funding activities”. 

The NIHR has subsequently scrapped a condition where it required universities that were applying for some of its funding to receive a silver Athena SWAN award.

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