Durham student satisfaction increases to 87.3% in 2020 National Student Survey

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Overall student satisfaction in courses offered by Durham University is 87.3%, according to data from this year’s National Student Survey (NSS).

The figures are an increase of 2.3% compared to the 2019 survey, and are 4% above the national average.

The improvement has come as a surprise to some, given that the figures reflect an academic year of major disruption.

Alongside months of COVID-19 restrictions and distancing learning, Durham was one of the dozens of universities that saw 22 days of strike action by members of the University and College Union (UCU).

Founded in 2005, the NSS is an annual survey undertaken by the Office for Students (OfS), a non-departmental public body of the Department for Education, and is open exclusively to final-year undergraduate students.

The 2020 survey, which ran between 6th January and 30th April, was open to students from 396 higher education institutions, including all 137 UK universities.

Across the country, over 310,000 students responded this year – a national response rate of 69%.

Although the official NSS data does not offer a breakdown of response rates by institution, Durham University claimed in May that “more than two thirds of [its] finalists” completed the survey this year. 

Durham was above average for teaching, but below for academic support.

The survey asks students to choose between 5 options, ranging from ‘Definitely agree’ to ‘Definitely disagree’, in response to 27 statements. The satisfaction rate comprises the percentage of students who select ‘Definitely agree’ or ‘Mostly agree’.

Nationwide NSS results / Image: OfS

As well as exceeding the national average for overall student satisfaction, Durham was above average for teaching, and organisation and management. The University was roughly on par for assessment and feedback, and learning resources.

90% of Durham respondents agreed that ‘staff are good at explaining things’, and that their ‘course is intellectually stimulating’.

However, Durham remains several percent below average for learning opportunities, academic support, learning community, and student voice. 

The University received relatively low scores for marking criteria being ‘clear in advance’ (69%) and feeling ‘part of a community of staff and students’ (66%)

Although 82% of students agreed that they have had ‘the right opportunities to provide feedback’, just 55% felt it was clear how their feedback had been acted on.

The full data for the survey can be found here.

The latter half of the NSS response window was dominated by COVID-19 restrictions, which forced higher education institutions to temporarily close nationwide.

Nonetheless, the OfS concluded that they had not found “evidence that the results had been strongly impacted by the pandemic”, and chose to publish the results in full, without any adjustments for COVID-19.

“This year we will continue to listen and learn.”

Alan Houston, Vice-Provost (Education)
Results are rounded to the nearest percent / Image:

In an email to students on Monday morning (20th), the University’s Vice-Provost (Education) Alan Houston welcomed the results, writing: “In an undoubtedly challenging year, this result demonstrates that the dedication and hard work of our staff across the University has not gone unnoticed.

“Our University Strategy 2017-2027 includes ambitious proposals to deliver an educational offer that is challenging, enabling, research-led and transformative. 

“The NSS is one of many metrics used to showcase our achievements as well as highlighting areas where we want to do better.

“This year we will continue to listen and learn. At a time when we are learning and connecting in new ways, this is more important than ever.

“If this year has proven anything, it’s that we know how to rise to a challenge and this is what we will do.”

Durham’s satisfaction in its Students’ Union was the lowest of all 137 UK universities.

The only of the survey’s 27 questions that does not deal with the University’s courses asks students whether “the students’ union […] effectively represents students’ academic interests”.

Just 28.9% of Durham respondents agreed with the statement, slightly over half the national average, and a drop of 3.5% compared to 2019.

Analysis by Palatinate found that Durham’s satisfaction in its Students’ Union was the lowest of all 137 UK universities.

Outgoing Durham Students’ Union President Kate McIntosh told Palatinate that the result “definitely does show us that we need to be better at communicating our successes and the things we understand as your academic interests.

“I think if we asked every student if a Covid-19 no-detriment policy, lecture capture, improved postgraduate working conditions, a 24/7 library, stopping the roll out of 8am lectures, decolonising the curriculum, online SAC forms, easier exam deferral, and better study spaces were in their interests, we would score much higher.

“These are all things that Durham SU’s Officers have done during every finalist’s time at Durham.”

Asked whether the controversy surrounding this year’s SU Officer Elections affected the result, McIntosh added: “I won’t ignore the obvious – the RON campaign aimed to delegitimise Durham SU, and the slight reduction in this year’s score could be explained by this.

“The reduction is similar to some other Russell Group universities, but given that we have also strengthened the course rep system this year, and delivered significant wins for students like the no-detriment policy, laptop loan scheme, free academic societies, and stopping cuts to the Durham Grant, it might be that the RON campaign damaged our ability to communicate these things.”

Despite drops in students’ union satisfaction, other Russell Group universities still had significantly higher SU satisfaction rates, including Sheffield (74%), St Andrews (69%), Newcastle (52%), Exeter (50%), and Warwick (44%). 

“We don’t regret choosing not to promote the NSS.”

Kate McIntosh, Durham Students’ Union President

The verdict comes six months after Undergraduate Academic Officer Sam Johnson-Audini published an article on the Students’ Union website entitled “Why we [the SU] won’t be promoting the National Student Survey”.

Johnson-Audini voiced the SU’s concern that the NSS plays a role in “the marketisation of higher education”, and that the survey is not “accessible for everyone”.

McIntosh told Palatinate: “Of course we don’t regret choosing not to promote the NSS. We don’t promote things to artificially boost our scores, we promote things when we believe they are in students’ best interests.

“Choosing not to promote the NSS probably did impact our scores, but we chose not to promote it because we don’t believe the NSS is a very useful tool in understanding how the University must change.”

The SU’s intervention is one of several in Durham against the NSS. One student campaign called for a boycott, while the UCU sent an email to its members asking them to not advertise the survey to students.

In response, the University announced in January that they would be offering prizes to the Department and College with the highest response rates.

However, the interventions do not appear to have had a major effect on response rate in Durham.

Image: Maddie Flisher

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