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Box-ticking, anyone?

Should you care about student satisfaction surveys?

The Times Higher Education annual Student Experience Survey results are out for 2017, with the specialist agricultural institution Harper Adams University taking the top slot. Loughborough is second, with Sheffield, Leeds and Surrey filling the rest of the top five.

The results are here (warning: registration/paywall):

Does it matter to you? Should it?

UniBox looked last year at Why League Tables Matter, and Why They Don't, and gave some steer as to how you can read them critically. The Telegraph gave advice last year, too, about how to read all the different satisfaction surveys out there.

Student satisfaction surveys are a ubiquitous part of university life, and their results are important to university managers everywhere. But they remain controversial.

To get a flavour of the debate you might want to listen to this Institute of Ideas discussion from 2014, available on SoundCloud, between distinguished panellists under the title of Who gives a damn about 'student satisfaction'?



They were talking, in the main, about the National Student Survey with all its demands and flaws.

What does it mean for universities?

Student satisfaction is controversial because it is inherent in the “consumerisation” of higher education, in the way that customer satisfaction is critical for any business. It's important to understand that, in the business world, marketing and customer satisfaction are not simply shallow devices for looking good so you can sell more stuff. They are complex, planned mechanisms for learning how to do things better – and thus for getting more customers and selling more stuff.

It's interesting to note that student satisfaction has become so embedded in university management in the last 10 or 15 years that even those who utterly reject it, in that Institute of Ideas debate, admit that they sound very old-fashioned.

Some of the key questions and issues are these:


Are students really partners in their own learning?

  • Do they really want to have a say in how their course is run?
  • Do they really care about value? A university doesn't just give an expensive “product” to “customers”.
  • Who knows whether a student has learned something better than the student themselves? Don't academics know it too (but do the less good ones really know it)?


Is student satisfaction all marketing? Is it about how the uni looks in its prospectus?

  • It's sometimes seen to be about building shiny new halls of residence, cafes and sports centres. But is that bad? Doesn't it mean that students live, eat and do exercise better?


Is business-style performance culture helpful?

  • Should lecturers really be managed in terms of student satisfaction? Is it right to judge lecturers on how far they meet students' aspirations?
  • Does it push the responsibility for whether a student learns onto the lecturer, when it perhaps should be the student's responsibility?
  • Lecturers are not trained teachers - it's more that they know an awful lot and want to share it. Their students' exam results may show how well they do that, but shouldn't there be some mechanism for them to improve?


Are students even supposed to be satisfied?

  • Isn't learning supposed to be uncomfortable? Are the right things being measured, and are university managers using the data, information and evidence they gain from such surveys the right way?
  • An emphasis on student satisfaction may pander to an 18/19-year-old's very self-centred world view, and not prepare them for a world of work where, quite often, nobody cares how satisfied you are.
  • Aren't we talking about adults, and shouldn't we listen to them?


Student satisfaction as a driver for improvements in teaching is here to stay. Lecturers may simply want to share their knowledge and help others to develop their ability to learn. But if you want to do that, isn't it better to have more people to share it with? In resisting a culture of continuous improvement with the aim of expanding your customer base, you might risk being rather... elitist.

In a nutshell, universities will use student satisfaction a) to sell themselves, and b) to inform their management of staff and planning for the future. This may or may not be a bad thing, depending on your point of view. But you should bear it in mind when reading the survey results.

What does it mean for my application?

So with all of that in mind, what weight should a student give to such surveys when they are making decisions about where and what to study?

A university might have a low satisfaction rating in one or more table of rankings, but it doesn't necessarily follow that it's a bad institution. It may indeed be very good in many ways.

When it comes to judging whether a particular university's facilities are suitable or even important, an applicant needs to have some self-awareness, or be advised about what might suit them.

A good score for the “academic experience” is one thing, but how does that break down? The Times Higher's rating for academic experience, for instance, is made up of scores in the following areas:

  • High quality staff / lectures
  • Helpful / interested staff
  • Well-structured courses
  • Good personal relationship with teaching staff
  • Tuition in small groups
  • Fair workload


An applicant might need to pay special attention to a university's score for contact hours and relationships with staff, for instance, if they are the kind of learner who naturally seeks a discussion, rather than heading to the library, when seeking answers.

Is access to a good fitness centre really going to be of any importance to them? If keeping fit helps them learn better, then great. Are they very self-sufficient, or might they be better off going somewhere that ranks highly for student welfare and support?

If they are set on a particular career, then perhaps a good score for industry contacts is a useful indicator – and even then, they should look at what industries the uni has best contacts with. Would it help them to be at a university where everything is nearby, perhaps on a single campus, or are they keen to get out and explore a new community?

Ultimately, a student satisfaction survey can give some indications of what an applicant might expect. But it should perhaps be taken as a source of new questions for the applicant to ask themselves or the uni.

And it absolutely should not be relied upon to tell you how well you'll do. The one thing all academics will agree on is that if you want to succeed at university, you have to put the work in.

Posted by Nicholas Manthorpe on Thu, 30 Mar 2017

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Nick was a reporter for the Eastern Daily Press and its sister weekly titles in Norfolk and Waveney, then served as Media Officer for North Norfolk District Council for 13 years. He now works as a writer and PR and media relations consultant. He is a member of the Chartered Institute of Public Relations, an associate member of the Chartered Management Institute and a member of East Anglian Writers.

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