UK student satisfaction continues to fall amid debt and strikes

Concerns over graduate debt and strikes on many campuses may have dented students’ satisfaction with their courses, according to the results of a national survey, with students at some of London’s most prestigious institutions among the most unhappy.

The national student survey (NSS), which recorded the views of 340,000 people studying at 400 universities and colleges across the UK, found 83% were satisfied with their course, below the 84% recorded in 2017 and 86% in 2016.

The NSS is of increasing importance to universities, feeding into the government’s teaching excellence framework in England and with its results used in international and national rankings.

Full-time students at a string of prestigious universities and colleges in London appeared less satisfied with their choices than those studying elsewhere, with just 71% of those at the London School of Economics (LSE) and 72% at the University of the Arts registering overall satisfaction.

Students at King’s College London, University College London, Queen Mary University and Goldsmiths also registered satisfaction levels a little below the national average, a result attributed to the higher cost and difficulties with housing and transport in the capital.

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For LSE, the 71% result was particularly disappointing compared with the 74% satisfaction recorded in the survey in 2017.

“We have introduced significant reforms across campus but we know it will take time before these changes are reflected,” said Minouche Shafik, the LSE’s director.

“Improving student satisfaction is our top priority. We are changing our assessment process, improving academic support and feedback, and developing student services on campus. We will keep listening and keep acting.”

Why are university staff striking?

Why are university staff striking?

University staff who are members of the University and College Union are angry at proposed changes to their pensions, which they argue could leave them up to £10,000 a year worse off when they retire. UCU say this would result in a loss more than £200,000 over the course of a retirement for a typical member of staff. Universities UK wants to change the Universities Superannuation Scheme from a defined benefit scheme – giving a guaranteed retirement income – to a defined contribution scheme, which would mean pensions would be subject to changes in the stock market. The union says young lecturers would be worst affected, with some losing up to half their pensions.

What is the argument for the changes?

Universities UK says its pension scheme has a £6bn deficit and it have a legal duty to put in place a credible plan to tackle it by this summer. Without reform, pensions contributions would have to rise steeply – and would mean spending cuts in other areas such as teaching, student support and research. Universities UK says that even after the changes the scheme would compare well with employer contributions double the private sector average.

What about students?

About 80,000 students at 30 of the universities affected have signed petitions. Many are supportive of striking staff but are demanding compensation for the hours of tuition they will miss because of the strikes. Students in England pay £9,250 a year, and have rights under consumer law. Whether these rights apply to industrial disputes is untested.

Photograph: Stephen Shepherd
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Several other members of the Russell Group of leading research universities also saw falling satisfaction rates, including Sussex, down from 88% in 2017 to 82%, and Durham, down from 90% to 85%.

St Andrews in Scotland topped the list with a 94% satisfaction rate, the highest for a large, mainstream institution.

“Overall student satisfaction levels at Russell Group universities remain high. This shows our universities are delivering for students, with excellent learning resources and intellectually stimulating courses,” a spokesperson for the group said.

Full-time students in Wales were more approving of their courses, with 86% satisfied compared with 84% in Northern Ireland and 83% in England and Scotland.

The latest data includes the results of a number of institutions that did not record results in 2017 because of a boycott supported by the National Union of Students, while this year neither Oxford nor Cambridge universities managed to submit enough completed surveys to be included.

Minouche Shafik, the LSE’s director, says improving student satisfaction is a priority. Photograph: Toby Melville/Reuters

A number of smaller institutions received a 100% satisfaction rating from their students, including Ashton sixth form college in greater Manchester, which offers higher and adult education courses.

Students in England appeared least happy with their assessment and feedback, with fewer than three out of four agreeing marking was fair. Just 73% of full-time students said they had received “helpful comments” on their work.

“While we have seen overall satisfaction fall by 1%, many questions have maintained their satisfaction levels including the student voice, academic support, learning resources and assessment and feedback questions,” said Nicola Dandridge, the chief executive of the Office for Students, England’s higher education regulator.

“While I am pleased to see the overall satisfaction rate remains high, the data shows that there is more work to be done to ensure all students have a high quality and fulfilling experience of higher education.”

Alex Hayman of Which? said the results were “broadly positive” but urged prospective students to do careful research.

“There are variations and the slight fall in the overall result emphasises the importance of students having access to all the information they need to make the best choice about where to study at university,” Hayman said.

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