National Student Survey – the results are in!

Yesterday saw the publication of this year’s National Student Survey (NSS) results. Final-year undergraduates were invited to fill out a questionnaire, assessing their satisfaction with the quality of their university and degree programme. The results are captured in aggregate scores that allow the country’s universities to be ranked according to overall ‘student satisfaction’. This year’s results indicated an 86% average score across all universities, with the lowest scores nevertheless indicating a 71 to 75 percent satisfaction rate.

So good news all round, as far as the universities themselves are concerned. Student satisfaction is a criteria sometimes used to assess universities in national and global league tables, and yesterday’s results will abate concerns that £9000-a-year tuition fees are leaving some students dissatisfied with their degree’s ‘value for money’.

But for many of the 312,000 final-year undergraduates who were surveyed, and are now searching for graduate jobs and placements, the NSS results may not be entirely reassuring.

In 2009, controversy emerged when one member of a university’s academic staff was reported as having told students to artificially inflate their scores when participating in the survey. A poor position in the rankings would encourage employers to look unfavourably upon that university’s students and their degrees, he warned. It’s little wonder that the NSS has been criticised by some for contributing to a broader ‘elitism’ in the league tables, which puts highly capable and work-minded graduates from lower-ranking universities at a disadvantage. On the one hand you could argue that there is, at least in theory, no direct link between a university’s ‘student satisfaction’ and the employability of its graduates. But when the NSS results are used to inform league tables, and contribute to long-standing reputations, things become more complicated.

The idea that recruiters will often make snap judgments on job candidates due to the reputation of their university is particularly discouraging, especially if you’ve graduated from a university that rarely scores highly in rankings. The latest High Fliers Report found that, of the ten universities most frequently targeted by the UK’s top graduate employers, nine belonged to the Russell Group. Of course there are a number of factors which determine how recruiters approach various universities, but rightfully or not, many upcoming graduates continue to worry that their chances of getting a job are negatively affected by poor scores in the league tables.

However, there is evidence to suggest that rankings shouldn’t act as a barometer for how confident graduates feel about securing a job. In November of last year, UK recruiters were asked to reveal which universities produced the most employable graduates. Less than 20% of participants stated that ‘university reputation’ was an important criteria, whereas existing university-recruiter links and the ‘production of ready-to-work graduates’ were deemed more important. Their ranking of universities barely correlates at all with the NSS and World University Rankings for the same academic year. The University of Nottingham has a World University Rank of 143, and is tied for 35th place in this year’s NSS, yet scored much higher in November’s survey. As one of its graduates, I can understand why the university would score lower in student satisfaction than many smaller, non-Russell Group universities. This does not affect my belief that, on the quality of the teaching alone, I am no less capable of impressing a recruiter or securing a job. The confusion that can arise from these conflicting interpretations is perhaps a sign that, at the very least, we need to look at alternative ways of determining the correlation between universities and their graduates’ employability.

On balance, this year’s alumni will hopefully take comfort in the fact that poorer-scoring universities do not necessarily produce fewer employable graduates. Anyone disappointed by their university’s performance in the rankings, particularly the NSS, should not be deterred from applying to the country’s most competitive graduate opportunities. Any recruiter worth their salt will disregard the league table for a more comprehensive assessment of a candidate’s suitability.

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