University Of Bedfordshire NSS
The NSS at the University of Bedfordshire
Good morning everyone, and thanks to Sami for the invitation to speak to you today.
I’ve been asked to discuss the changes that have taken place at the University of Bedfordshire since I become Vice Chancellor in 2012 – which I will do with a real sense of pride – but I will also attempt to set this within the wider context and history of the National Student Survey.
I hope you will forgive me for that indulgence, but having been there right at the start; I’d like to think that I’m entitled to such liberties!
In fact it’s not just me; Bedfordshire – or University of Luton as it was then – was one of the handful of universities involved in the 2003 pilot that preceded the full national survey. We go back a long way!
But having been the Higher Education Minister that welcomed the first full national student survey in 2005, I’ve been digging around some of the reaction and statements from that time.
I made the prediction that, and I quote, “Students will want to know that the investment they are making represents the best value for their money. This knowledge will put them in a strong position to bring about further improvements in colleges and universities.”
The NSS was to provide a link between student feedback and the actions of their own departments and institutions. I’m confident that, in the main, we have seen this positive progress.
Interestingly however, back in 2004, the Education Secretary (a certain Alan Johnson) said that that
“the information collected from the National Student Survey will not be used by (the) Department to formulate any sort of league table”.
Of course, it’s not the Government that puts together the league table, so Alan was completely right. But the ranking of institutions is, to my mind, a healthy development of the annual NSS cycle.
That’s not a view that’s always shared across the sector, and indeed it might be easier for me to share my support as the leader of a University that’s heading in the right direction, but it’s absolutely right that students and prospective students are able to judge relative performance.
The then Vice Chancellor of the OU in 2005, Brenda Gourley, gave more of a lukewarm welcome. She said that we had to be careful to avoid a “crass consumerism culture” and was worried about “popularity parades and celebrity professors”.
The OU is an institution that has always performed well in the NSS, and has properly promoted that performance through the media and marketing so I think that the last ten years has disproved Professor Gourley’s worries. But I will address the “consumerist” critique later on in my remarks.
The development of the NSS as a truly national survey has also been a positive reflection on our commitment to measuring student satisfaction. Not just the growth of participation in Scotland, but it now seems incredible that Oxford, Cambridge and Warwick didn’t take part in that very first one.
So, all-in-all, I’m delighted to be here today at the tenth national student survey conference – and to speak about our developments at Bedfordshire.
My – our – approach is founded on three key elements:
Prioritisation; Partnership; and Planning.
- Prioritisation – an institution-wide focus on the student experience as our number one priority, and recognition of the NSS as a barometer of our success in delivering on that priority.
- Partnership – across the institution between faculties and professional services; between senior management and department/course leaders; and our commitment to partnership between the University and students.
- Planning – student experience and student satisfaction is a year-round activity, with regular opportunities for students to feedback and comment, and for us to react, and place this at the heart of our business planning cycle. This includes NSS targets at faculty and departmental levels.
Student experience – and the NSS – is a process, not an event at the University of Bedfordshire.
From being our number one priority; Through an active partnership with students; To plans based on thorough assessment and analysis of performance and issues.
I joined a University with a 78 per cent rating for overall satisfaction, and an NSS participation rate of 67 per cent. Frankly, not good enough on either count.
So, on my arrival in in 2012 I paused the introduction a new five year strategic plan and re- emphasised that the student experience should be at the heart of all we did as a University.
Obviously, the results of the NSS are a crucial benchmark in judging our performance.
This year, we reached 84 per cent overall satisfaction, and a participation rate of 83 per cent.
My approach to leading change at Bedfordshire and setting out our strategic objectives and priorities is one that seeks to bind people together as one institution, as we share and live our mission to transform lives.
And it’s not just down to the academic in the lecture hall with the student. We are all in that business of transforming lives. No matter what your job description actually says. It has to be a real team effort – with the staff and student experience linked together within our community.
We are clear with our students as they join us that we will work together to unlock their potential, to meet and extend their expectations, and set them on the path to their future.
Therefore, the way that we are judged in the NSS – amongst other measures – is a reflection on how successful we’ve been.
And if you look at our performance in areas such as Improving Career Prospects and Career Choices; Assessment & Feedback; and Personal Development; that hard work is really paying off.
But too often senior managers in Universities – perhaps educationalists as a whole – think that policy changes or developments such as the NSS are things that are “done to them”.
Sometimes that can be true, and we can’t always influence some of those factors; but it can also unfortunately lead to internal culture that believes the same. Sometimes it’s couched in pseudo- academic terms, but more often than not it’s just expressed as a “they’re out to get us” mentality.
I picked up on an element of that on my arrival at Bedfordshire. Not that we were alone in that view.
And although we might all have grumbles about Government policy or the latest accounting announcement from HEFCE, there is no future in university staff feeling that measuring student experience is also something that is “done to us”.
I don’t make a habit of quoting right-wing Tory politicians, but Enoch Powell once got it right when decrying MPs tendency to blame everything on the media. He said that
“For a politician to complain about the press is like a ship’s captain complaining about the sea”.
I feel it’s something of the same when staff – or leaders even – at Universities fail to understand that the ‘student experience’ – academic, social, cultural – is our core mission.
When those whinges do emerge, it’s usually down to a lack of leadership, or a real failure to understand the dynamics of the changing fees and funding systems.
That’s why ‘prioritisation’ is so important. I take the view that as Vice Chancellor I’m not only accountable for the overall performance of the University, I’m accountable in particular for the student experience.
It’s not just about systems and structures, but these are important to delivery and strategy.
So, for example, I chair our university student experience project board; I sit on our Governors’ student experience committee; and I always attend university-wide workshops which share and discuss best practice on student experience and NSS performance.
Just to take two of those forums – our student experience group and board of governors – there is strong student union representation on both. The lived experience comes right to the heart of decision-making.
This brings me onto the importance of a partnership approach. You have to be hungry for information to keep improving the student experience. The breadth of information that comes through the NSS is invaluable.
But you also need to dig below the headlines, and compare and contrast the information and evidence that comes through different forums.
The more information you have – the easier it becomes to identify themes and common issues. The division of topics in the NSS is a useful guide. But it has to work with other channels.
We’re one of very few Universities to invite the President of our Students’ Union onto the Executive Group as a member. Indeed, we may be the only one where the President is a full member, without recourse to confidential and edited items.
The student voice is there at the most senior executive decision-making forum in the University. But it’s not a stand-alone policy.
It fits with our wider approach which includes an increased emphasis on course representatives; students as members of interview panels; a student shadowing initiative for governors and senior managers; and SU President and Vice President as members of the Governing body.
Not only have we as a University improved across the board, and in particular for overall student satisfaction, the performance of our SU has improved by 8 per cent over the last two years.
So, just as the NSS and league tables are not “done to Universities”, the experience is not “done” to students. At its best, it’s an active partnership between institution and the student body.
The NSS is a hugely important tool to gauge students’ recognition of our investment and efforts on all matters of their experience.
That’s one of the reasons we work closely with our SU in reflecting back to students on actions taken because of feedback; involvement in capital projects such as a new library; and course & departmental developments.
On campus, students are clearly visible and audible. Especially if like me, your office is at the heart of campus and not tucked away beyond a lake or a wall!
But you have to make a real effort to ensure that their “experience” is visible and audible. The NSS is integral to that effort at the University of Bedfordshire.
Not just the outcomes we get in August. But the planning cycle throughout the year in addressing any issues from the previous year; the influence on our own internal ‘taking the temperature’ surveys and focus groups; and how we plan the student experience items and issues for senior meetings and forums.
On that last point of internal forums: I mentioned earlier that I’m relaxed about the external pressures that come with the NSS league table.
I’m ambitious from my University to climb that table, and we’re heading in the right direction. It’s vital for our recruitment and reputation. But I’m also keen on a bit of healthy internal competition.
So, in the build-up and during the NSS period, there is always an item at our monthly university-wide heads of department meetings where colleagues have the opportunity to showcase some good practice.
It might be innovation in teaching; a good industry link-up or a focus on feedback or personal development. Just as importantly – I encourage colleagues to involve their students in those presentations.
This peer influence – or peer pressure – is important. And we directly link it back to encouraging heads of departments to increase participation in the NSS.
There’s no point in trying to manage an NSS process which might give you a positive, but false, impression.
That’s why I’ve been keen to raise participation – and to know our truths. Having increased participation by 16 per cent over two years, I’m confident that our 6 per cent increase in overall satisfaction is an accurate reflection of an improved student experience.
That is underpinned by new initiatives such as our ‘Tell Us’ scheme, which encourages feedback on all issues related to student experience, as well as monthly themed surveys.
I mentioned the visible and audible a bit earlier. But it’s not just students. I believe in shared leadership. I brought our faculty executive deans onto the senior executive group. It was the right thing to do.
But by being part of the leadership, I also expect them to lead on the student experience, bringing an evidence-base from faculties and departments to the top table – but also to take that strategic leadership out to those areas as well.
Where departments can do better – I expect the Deans to find out what’s going on and identify the improvements, and present the plan back to me and their peers. But that process can only succeed through partnership. With the Associate Deans for Student Experience in each faculty; with the Course Leaders and Heads of Department; the Student representatives and so on.
But as I stressed earlier – it’s a process not an event. And one that is founded on partnership rather than constantly reacting.
Some might suggest that my emphasis on the NSS contradicts my belief in a ‘students as partners, students as citizens’, approach.
Of course, an emphasis on Question 22 can often be viewed as a consumerist approach, with individual students as single consumers of a single product.
I would argue, however, that the breadth of the NSS gives us a wider perspective, and reflects development, personal empowerment and engagement.
And I’m pleased to see further emphasis on these elements as the NSS evolves in 2017, as set out in the recent review.
Just as I support the new focus on student involvement and engagement in QAA Institutional Reviews (and I think more can be done there) – its right that the National Student Survey develops along these lines.
If, as my institution does, you seek to nurture students as citizens, then sections on student voice and collaborative learning will hopefully reflect that imperative of rights and responsibilities.
It will assess, and hopefully address, any moves towards the idea of a passive, consumer student, and encourage further emphasis on active partnership.
It’s still my view that contact with academics and fellow students, and indeed challenge and reflection within that community, helps define what it means to be a university student.
If we’re in the business of nurturing the next generation of employable and entrepreneurial global citizens – as we must be – then it’s right that the NSS evolves and develops to include areas of community learning, student voice and challenge and reflection. These are the core skills and experience that we should be in the business of developing.
Therefore I’m a supporter of the incremental change in the NSS, and in particular the emphasis on student engagement.
We’ve achieved more than ‘incremental’ change in the student experience at Bedfordshire over the last couple of years. But there’s still more to do.
It will remain our number one priority – because it’s the right thing to do. We will deliver it in partnership – because students are partners, learners and citizens, not customers. And we do all this through by planning to succeed – based on information, evidence, feedback, communications and all channels.
Congratulations on ten years of the NSS, and enjoy the rest of the conference.