Research Article: A 10-year case study on the changing determinants of university student satisfaction in the UK

Date Published: February 23, 2018

Publisher: Public Library of Science

Author(s): Adrian Burgess, Carl Senior, Elisabeth Moores, Christos A. Ouzounis.


Higher Education (HE), once the prerogative of a tiny elite, is now accessible to larger numbers of people around the world than ever before yet despite the fact that an understanding of student satisfaction has never been more important for today’s universities, the concept remains poorly understood. Here we use published data from the UK’s National Student Survey (NSS), representing data from 2.3 million full-time students collected from 2007 to 2016, as a case study of the benefits and limitations of measuring student satisfaction that might have applicability for other countries, particularly those that, like the UK, have experienced significant growth in student numbers. The analyses showed that the factor structure of the NSS remained generally stable and that the ability of the NSS to discriminate between different subjects at different universities actually improved over the ten-year sample period. The best predictors of overall satisfaction were ‘Teaching Quality’ and ‘Organisation & Management’, with ‘Assessment & Feedback’ having relatively weak predictive ability, despite the sector’s tangible efforts to improve on this metric. The tripling of student fees in 2012 for English students (but not the rest of the UK) was used as a ‘natural experiment’ to investigate the sensitivity of student satisfaction ratings to the real economic costs of HE. The tuition fee increase had no identifiable negative effect, with student satisfaction steadily improving throughout the decade. Although the NSS was never designed to measure perceived value-for-money, its insensitivity to major changes in the economic costs of HE to the individual suggest that the conventional concept of student satisfaction is incomplete. As such we propose that the concept of student satisfaction: (i) needs to be widened to take into account the broader economic benefits to the individual student by including measures of perceived value-for-money and (ii) should measure students’ level of satisfaction in the years post-graduation, by which time they may have a greater appreciation of the value of their degree in the workplace.

Partial Text

There is no doubt that Higher Education (HE) brings many advantages to the graduating student as well as a wider range of societal benefits that subsequently drive economic growth [1–3]. The average graduate, for example, can expect to enjoy lifetime earnings far greater than their non-graduate contemporaries (the so-called ‘Graduate Premium) [4–6] so it is no surprise that the global HE sector remains vibrant and that more and more people are applying to study at universities than ever before [7].

There is good evidence that student satisfaction has improved substantially over the last decade and that those areas of greatest weakness (e.g. ‘Assessment & Feedback’) have shown greatest improvement. The NSS has proved to be a robust and stable tool over the last decade and, in as much as it has changed, it has improved and now offers better discrimination between courses at different universities than it did before. For the educational manager who wants to improve their institutional ratings, it is clear that ‘Teaching Quality’ and ‘Organisation & Management’ are the most important factors in shaping student satisfaction and, as teaching quality appears to be near ceiling levels, a ruthless emphasis on the smooth running and good design of courses would seem to be a sensible route to follow. If the NSS has one limitation, it is that it fails to address student perception of value-for-money and, with the increasing influence of market forces in HE, this seems to be an important oversight.




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