The results from the National Student Survey (NSS), which saw a number of universities omitted following a boycott, show a divide among Imperial students, with a wide range in satisfaction rates between undergraduate courses.

The survey, which is given to all final-year undergraduates, showed that 84% of students surveyed felt satisfied with their course – the same rate as the national average. Nationally, this gave Imperial a satisfaction ranking of 74th, placing it level with Cardiff University and University of Hull, among others.

However, upon further analysis the data reveal a wide variation in satisfaction between different departments. The year-on-year change in satisfaction between departments was nearly evenly split: out of the 15 departments surveyed, 8 had a drop in satisfaction rates from the previous NSS.

Physics is revealed as one of the least satisfied departments, with nearly all responses below national average
Felix//Cale Tilford

Students who completed a year at Imperial College Business School as part of their degree – e.g. BSc Chemistry with Management – were the least satisfied with their course overall, with a satisfaction rate of only 66%.

Students in the Department of Physics also reported low levels of satisfaction, with an overall satisfaction rate of only 67%. Out of their responses to the 27 questions that make up the NSS, 25 were below the national average, and all were below the Imperial average. Overall, fewer than half of the physics students surveyed felt that they were part of a community of staff and students (45% agreed), thought that feedback was timely (46% agreed), or believed that marking was fair (43% agreed).

Other departments or subjects that fared poorly in terms of overall satisfaction included Biomedical Science (70%), Chemistry (73%), and Aeronautical Engineering (78%) – all these were below the national average.

For the Physics Department, these results follow a number of consecutive years of poor performance on the NSS: since 2015, Physics has consistently been among the worst performing departments, in terms of the number of responses that were below the national average. Similarly, biomedical science students, who answered below the national average to 21 of the questions this year, have been among the least satisfied since 2014.

While Geology has remained on top for a number of years, Physics has been steadily dropping its ranking since 2012 (rankings based on number of questions answered below national average)
Felix//Cale Tilford

In contrast, geology students were the most satisfied overall, with 97% of students being satisfied with their course. Furthermore, their responses to all 27 questions were above both the national average and the Imperial average. Mechanical engineering students and civil engineering students also reported high levels of satisfaction.

Imperial students from all disciplines were most likely to report problems with assessment, feedback, academic support, and teaching. Statements that scored significantly below the national average included ‘feedback on my work has been timely’ and ‘I have received helpful comments on my work’, which scored 11% and 12% lower than the national average, respectively.

Other statements that were low-scoring for Imperial included ‘I have received sufficient advice and guidance on my course’, ‘the criteria used in marking were made clear in advance’, and ‘I feel part of a community of staff and students’.

The 27 questions in the NSS covered a wide range of topics, from representation to assessment and feedback

Some results were especially striking: only 35% of biomedical science students thought that feedback was timely, and only 48% of chemistry students felt that their feedback to the department was acted upon.

One final year undergraduate said that these results "showed the fundamental disconnect between faculty staff and undergraduates". The student, who has just finished their degree programme, told Felix: "among my friends and peers, the general opinion seems to be that – while some individual staff members are fantastic at making their subject engaging – the faculty in general does not care about undergraduate students. For Imperial academics there is a culture of focussing on their own research at the expense of undergraduate teaching; this can be seen clearly by the inadequate feedback that we get on our work, if we get feedback at all."

However, Imperial did score highly in a number of areas: 90% of students agreeing that during their course they had the right opportunities to provide feedback. Similarly, 73% of students felt that it was clear how the feedback had been acted on – an increase of 11% on the national average.

While some departments had better scores then the national average, certain question elicited a near-universal negative response, e.g. Q11: I have received helpful comments on my work
Felix//Cale Tilford

At the time of the release of the results, Professor Simone Buitendijk, Imperial’s Vice-Provost (Education) said “This year we’ve made great strides in our ambition to make Imperial a beacon for innovative, evidenced-based and inclusive teaching. Our new Learning and Teaching Strategy gives us a clear framework to build on our existing strengths and drive the changes that our students want and need.”

The College’s ‘Learning and Teaching Strategy’, which “lays out the principles of an Imperial education” was released in June of this year. A statement from an Imperial College Union representative in response to the NSS similarly highlighted the strategy: “The Union was pleased to see that much of the feedback [from the NSS] has already been addressed in the College’s Learning & Teaching Strategy that was launched towards the end of last academic year. This demonstrates that the College is working in partnership with Imperial College Union to actively address students’ feedback.”

They added “we hope that through working both with the College as whole and with individual departments, we can identify the areas of good practice from departments that are consistently scoring highly and share this practice across Imperial.”

Students’ perceptions of how the Union represents them was better than the national average: the proportion of students agreeing with the statement ‘The students’ union effectively represents students’ academic interest’ was 3% higher than the national average. However, the proportion of student agreeing with the statement – 61% – was the lowest response to any of the 27 questions in the NSS.

A Union representative issued the following statement: “we’re proud that Imperial College Union scores above the national average – our members have ranked us amongst the highest in the Russell Group as well as being above sector average. Of course, we would like to see that number get even better in future. We are extremely proud of the work done by the volunteers in our Academic Representation Network and will continue to improve how we support Academic Reps across the College to convey the views of students to academics.”

This year’s NSS has been somewhat overshadowed by a boycott of the survey, which was endorsed by 25 student unions in the UK. The boycott was organised due to the NSS’ link to the Teaching Excellence Framework (Tef), whose awards can determine the amount by which institutions may raise their tuition fees. Tef was introduced by Jo Johnson, MP for Orpington and Minister for Universities and Science, in 2016. Higher Education Institutions (HEIs) that have the highest levels of the Tef award will be able to raise their tuition fees in line with inflation, potentially up to £10,000 per year by 2020.

Imperial was awarded a TEF Gold Award, the highest level possible, in June of this year. It was among 60 institutions awarded the title, alongside other HEIs such as Oxford and Cambridge.

The National Union of Students and the UCU, who were driving forces behind the boycott, cited concerns that HEIs might use the NSS results to apply for TEF award status, allowing them to raise tuition fees. In a joint statement, they said that ‘the introduction of the Tef in its proposed form will accelerate the marketisation of our sector, entrench inequality and damage the UK's academic reputation.’

The boycott saw the results of twelve universities omitted due to a failure to reach a 50% participation rate, including Oxford, Cambridge, and UCL. Some universities saw large drops in participation: UCL, for example, saw a drop of 30% in participation compared to the 2016 NSS. Overall, participation nationwide dropped 4% year-on-year, from 72% to 68%.

Responding to the boycott, Amatey Doku, the NUS Vice President (Higher Education), said that the figures ‘demonstrate just how easily this data can be skewed and how unreliable they are as a measure of teaching quality within this framework. This serves as a reminder that students are opposed to soaring tuition fees and are ready to use their power to challenge any ill-thought changes to the sector which will ultimately see them losing out.

The boycott is just part of a larger debate around higher education funding. Earlier this year, a survey by the Higher Education Policy Unit and the Higher Education Academy found that only 35% of students thought that university was good value for money.

In an extraordinary meeting held on the 12th January 2017, Imperial College Union Council voted against supporting the boycott. A Union representative said that “after much discussion, Union Council voted not to boycott the NSS and instead to collaborate. The close collaboration was a keystone in the College being awarded Gold in the TEF this year. We hope that all Students’ Unions went through a similar open discussion and engaged their members in the decision making process.”

Imperial’s final participation rate was 74%, a drop on the previous year.

What is the National Student Survey (NSS)?

  • The NSS is a yearly questionnaire that is sent out to all final-year undergraduates in the UK, asking them a series of 27 questions across a range of domains, including “Assessment and Feedback” and “Academic Support”. Respondents may choose from five responses, ranging from “definitely agree” to “definitely disagree”. It has been running since 2005.
  • The NSS is commissioned by the Higher Education Funding Council for England (HEFCE), and is undertaken by the market research company Ipsos MORI, which is one of the largest companies of its kind in the world.
  • It is carried out by all Higher Education Institutions, of which Imperial is one.
  • This year saw significant changes in the questions asked in the NSS, which increased in size from 22 to 27 core questions; new sections were added on “learning opportunities” and “student voice”.
  • In response to the changes, a Union representative said that “the addition and alteration of some of the questions makes it difficult to compare some of the data to previous years, but the Union supports the addition of the ‘Learning Opportunities’ section. This highlights the importance of practical application of knowledge- something we want the College’s curricula review to prioritise.