I am writing to all RUSU’s full-time officers and school representatives ahead of the 2017 National Student Survey (NSS) that launches in the coming weeks.
Firstly, thank you for playing such a significant part in the academic life of your schools and departments. Your constructive attitude and close working with staff are critical to addressing issues and raising standards in course management, assessment, feedback and study support that benefits all of our students.
Secondly, your role means you are likely to be asked questions by your fellow students about RUSU’s campaign asking finalists not to complete this year’s NSS – to first, "put pressure” on the University to freeze tuition fees at £9,250 for 2017/18 for three years, and second, calling for the University to withdraw from the national trial of the Teaching Excellence Framework (TEF) assessment, which starts this month.
For your information, I would like to set out the University’s position on TEF, NSS and tuition fees in detail ahead of the annual NSS process starting in the coming weeks. I also wanted to respond in detail to the Q&A published recently on RUSU’s website in a further annex.
It is disappointing that this year’s NSS at Reading is being used as a political football, as the Survey is a crucial exercise in helping to make our University even better. It provides us with the most comprehensive, independent and full picture of what our final year students think of their University: what works well and what needs improving.
We already are talking to the RUSU Executive about creating a broader basket of measures for teaching quality and student satisfaction than the NSS. RUSU’s campaign, however, undermines that work.
- The TEF is being trialled across the UK this year with the vast majority of universities in England participating, including Reading. The government will hold a full evaluation and lessons learned review of the exercise in the summer, ahead of a full rollout that is expected in 2018. The University has always been clear that the TEF model being tested now is not perfect – however, we believe it is sensible and constructive to be a part of the trial from the outset, working closely with government, other universities and the NUS to get it right in the long run.
- RUSU is right to argue for the University to listen to students – but it is contradictory for it to ask that the NSS be excluded.
- A low NSS completion rate means we will not receive a full picture of final year undergraduates’ views, making it more difficult to intervene where we need to for the future. It may only take up to 15 minutes for each individual student to complete the NSS, but every opinion is vital to help make the University even better.
- Our overall satisfaction rates from the NSS are consistently high but we are not complacent. We know there is more to do, particularly on feedback and assessment, and ensuring even greater consistency of approach across academic schools and departments.
- RUSU is wrong to say that the NSS does not affect league tables as it is included in all the main UK league tables, including the Guardian University Guide, the Complete University Guide, and the Sunday Times/Times Good University Guide.
- RUSU is also wrong to claim that “the higher [University of Reading] scores in the [Teaching Excellence Framework], the higher they can increase fees”. Under ministers' plans, universities which receive a Gold, Silver or Bronze rating in the TEF in 2017 will have the option of raising tuition fees from September 2018 in line with, and no greater than, inflation – meaning tuition fees can maintain their spending power but they are not inflated above that value.
- We have frozen tuition fees at £9,000 a year for all existing UK and EU undergraduate students and students who are deferring to 2017/18.
- We have fixed tuition fees at £9,250 a year for new UK and EU undergraduates starting in 2017/18. This fee will be fixed for the full duration of their course. This will enable us to continue to invest in frontline teaching, learning and support services and help make up the 5% or more real-terms cut in the value of the £9,000 a year fee that has not risen in line with inflation since first being introduced in September 2012.
- We have made no commitments or decisions on tuition fees for new UK and EU students beyond 2017/18 – instead we are adopting a wait-and-see policy on how the new TEF system progresses and embeds. We also need to take into account the wider economy and finances in higher education. With inflation projected to rise, freezing tuition fees risks leading to a real-terms cut in tuition fee income and a possibility of the University not being able to continue to invest in the student experience.
Professor Gavin Brooks
Pro-Vice Chancellor (Teaching and Learning)
Questions about the National Student Survey 2017
The following are our responses to questions raised on the RUSU website in relation to the NSS 2017.
Will boycotting the NSS damage the reputation of the University and therefore decrease the value of my degree?
Our job is to give you everything you need to succeed in your studies and enhance your prospects for employment when you leave the University. In addition, we want you to have a great time when you are here.
That’s why giving us honest, open and unvarnished feedback in the NSS is taken extremely seriously by the University. It means we can listen, understand and act on your views.
The NSS is the most comprehensive, independent and full picture of what our final year students think of their University: what works well and what needs improving.
We analyse the data in detail and review hundreds of individual comments every year.
We never, ever, ask students to fill in the NSS to improve the University’s league rankings, increase the value of your degree or improve our reputation. That would be what NSS’ pollsters, Ipsos MORI, call “inappropriate influence”.
It is, however, a fact that the NSS plays a major part in the main UK league tables.
It is not new for the NSS to be included in national ranking and ratings assessments. It is already included in the main UK league tables:
- Guardian University Guide (25% of institutions’ score; 25% of subject-level scores)
- The Complete University Guide (17% of institutions’ overall score; 25% of subject-level scores)
- The Sunday Times/Times Good University Guide (17% of institutions’ scores; 25% of subject-level scores).
If tuition fees don’t go up, will the standard of my education suffer?
The University constantly looks for ways to target more money on frontline teaching, research and support services. At the same time, it seeks to make savings for reinvestment wherever it can.
However, freezing fees at the 2017/18 rate of £9,250 for three years, as RUSU proposes, ties our hands and risks having a serious impact on our plans. It would also have a negative impact on future generations of students and staff.
Tuition fees have never risen in line with inflation since their introduction in September 2012. That means the fixed £9,000 fee loses its spending power year-on-year.
To illustrate, the original £9,000 fee is now worth approximately £8,500 in real terms this year – a 5.5% reduction per student. This fall will accelerate if inflation rises next year, as projected by most major economists.
That’s why we have taken a balanced and sensible approach by:
- freezing tuition fees at £9,000 a year for all existing UK and EU undergraduates, including those who started their studies in 2016/17, and those who are deferring entry until 2017/18
- making a contractual obligation to students at the start of their course not to raise fees during their course – and we will not renege on that commitment
- setting tuition fees at £9,250 a year for UK and EU undergraduates starting in 2017/18 – around £12 a week extra during term time on top of current levels
- making no decisions at this point on future tuition fee levels for 2018/19 onwards. The University Council, our ultimate decision-making body, will not make any changes without considerable analysis, discussion and evidence.
Will boycotting the NSS negatively affect the funding for my course?
No. Funding for academic schools and departments is based on student numbers, operating costs and overheads, and five-year business plans – not NSS results.
How do I get to give my feedback to the University without filling in the NSS?
RUSU is right to argue for the University to listen to students and act on their views.
But it is contradictory then to ask 2017 finalists not to fill in the NSS and thus deprive the University of their feedback.
The NSS is the most comprehensive, detailed and independent survey of all finalists’ views.
The NSS is not the be-all and end-all, but it enables us to compare ourselves against the highest performing universities and to make internal comparisons between schools within the University. A low completion rate in the NSS means we will not get a full picture of finalists’ views, making it harder to share the best practice and make improvements where necessary.
There are many other ways you can provide feedback on your course, school/department and our student services. And for first and second-years, the University will be piloting the new UK Engagement Survey (UKES) in four schools in 2017.
We are aiming to introduce this to all first and second year students in future.
How will a boycott of the NSS help to freeze fees?
RUSU asking finalists not to complete the NSS has no bearing whatsoever on future decisions on tuition fees.
We have already frozen fee levels at £9,000 for all existing UK and EU undergraduates; we intend to raise them to £9,250 in 2017-18 for new undergraduates; and we have made no decision on tuition fee levels for 2018/19 onwards.