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Vice-Provost views



NSS and preparing for subject-level TEF

By ucypasm, on 6 February 2018

The National Student Survey (NSS) – the annual survey of all undergraduate students in their final year of study – is now open and we are actively encouraging all eligible students to complete it.

The NSS has been with us since 2006 and it has become the single most persuasive driver for education change in UK universities. The feedback we get from our students completing the NSS is enormously valuable. While it doesn’t tell the whole story of what is happening across UCL, NSS scores and comments are the most listened-to voice of our undergraduate students. They help us to prioritise investment in the people, systems and facilities we need to improve their education.

NSS represents the student voice within the TEF (which now stands for the Teaching Excellence and Student Outcomes Framework). TEF was introduced in 2016. It aims to identify excellence in teaching, learning and outcomes and to contribute to the information students use to choose their course and place of study.

Last year the TEF Panel gave us a Silver Award. This institutional-level result reflected the averaging of metrics – particularly NSS – across UCL, masking significant variation at department level. We have departments where student satisfaction is best in sector while in some departments, even in the same faculty, student satisfaction remains stubbornly low.

We are now preparing for the next TEF exercise in 2019-20, which will be at subject level. This will bring into much sharper focus the variability of student satisfaction with teaching and learning across UCL. Programmes and departments struggling with poor student satisfaction scores will no longer be masked by excellence elsewhere. The criteria by which our performance will be judged are likely to include student satisfaction scores (NSS), teaching intensity (class sizes and contact time), graduate destinations and grade inflation. Pilots are currently underway to determine the methodology and we will know more towards the summer.

How are we preparing for subject-level TEF?

We have now received subject-level initial data and are reviewing and analysing it to understand how it impacts on individual programmes and departments. We will then be in touch with Deans and Vice-Deans directly to consider UCL’s institutional response to the consultation on the methodology, and to discuss priorities for development based on the data as they currently stand. We’ll also consider how preparation for the TEF can be linked to the development and enhancement plans produced through the Annual Student Experience Review (ASER).

We will focus on supporting improvements in key areas: assessment and feedback (through the Assessment Review), personal tutoring and departments’ approach to preparing students for their future careers.

Why NSS is so important

Ironically, the outcome of last year’s boycott of the NSS by the National Union of Students and local students’ unions, including our own, was that the weighting given to the student voice in the TEF through inclusion of the NSS will be halved in future rounds.

But, irrespective of the TEF, poor student satisfaction recorded from the NSS – and other internal and external surveys – is our Achilles’ heel and we need to get on to a trajectory of consistent improvement.

We know that our students like the intellectual stretch of our programmes and the data show that the outcomes for them are excellent, with 96% achieving a good degree (2:1 or First), in 2016-17. We have high absolute continuation rates, a reflection of the support we offer students throughout their programmes, and we have an excellent track record of supporting them into employment.

But many of our students tell us they are dissatisfied with key aspects of their programmes – academic support, assessment and feedback and in some cases teaching itself – and crucially the majority of our peer (and competitor) institutions do better on these metrics. That is why we are continuing with our focus on assessment and feedback and personal tutoring.

I have written about the persuasive power of the NSS and it is important that we encourage students to complete it to give us their view. It is important also that UCL does well in the TEF as in all external assessments: REF, TEF and now KEF (Knowledge Exchange Framework) will – like it or not – affect UCL’s reputation at a time when we face the uncertainty of Brexit and the certainties of declining demographics and intensifying competition. But the NSS and TEF are not ends in themselves. Our aim should always be nurturing in our students intellectual rigour, critical thought and engagement with the big issues of our time. Achieving this will give us much to celebrate, including success in the NSS and TEF.

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