Boldly going where no ‘survey’ has gone before?

As a not so secret trekkie, I am filled with anticipation for 2017 when the new Star Trek TV show ‘Discovery’ launches. The internet is abuzz as to in which timeline the show will be set, and if it can truly embrace and represent the diversity of our current time, and that of the future, with its lead characters.


2017 not only brings a new show to our TV screens but also a new survey to the screens and devices of UK Higher Education (HE) students. After three years of extensive consultation by HEFCE, the much anticipated questions for the 2017 National Student Survey (NSS) have been released.

The consultation process left little room for surprises (let’s hope the Discovery cast is a bit more energizing). The expected changes to existing questions and new questions on Learning Opportunities, Learning Community and Student Voice have been incorporated into the NSS, while questions about Personal Development have been removed. The survey is now being extended to 27 questions and eight sections compared to the 23 questions and six sections of the old version. The introduction of these questions and the use of the NSS in the Teaching Excellence Framework (TEF) ‘warp speeds’ the NSS even further away from its original purpose of public information and accountability.

The NSS may not be a perfect tool but there is no doubt it has had significant impact on the HE sector and the discourse around the student experience. This new version of the NSS will further shape this discourse, especially if the new sections are incorporated into the TEF metrics. The new survey will hopefully provide new and interesting insights into the student experience that we have not seen before, but what these insights will be is less certain.

Personally I am filled with anticipation as to what the survey will show us; will we discover that students affected by the attainment gap also do not feel part of a learning community or that their voice is heard or represented in the institutions they attend? Will subjects that are studio based and have traditionally done less well in the NSS suddenly perform much better because students are now asked about their learning community and opportunities? Will the HE sector discover that institutional polices and quality processes are too formal, rigid, and prescriptive to respond quickly, innovatively, and pragmatically to the student voice and create strong, collaborative learning communities?

Like the voyages of the Starship Enterprise, the 2017 NSS will provide the HE sector with a continuous mission: to explore new questions, to seek out new insights and new ways to enhance the student experience, and to boldly go where no ‘survey’ has gone before.

Nathaniel Pickering

Senior Lecturer in Research, Evaluation and Student Engagement