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Last Updated: Wednesday, 21 September 2005, 23:00 GMT 00:00 UK
Students rate university courses
Now we know what graduates were really thinking
The first major official survey of students' feelings about their courses shows more than 80% satisfied with their higher education.

The survey, of more than 170,000 final year students in England, Wales and Northern Ireland, is on a new website allowing course data to be compared.

There were significant differences between and within institutions.

Higher Education Minister Bill Rammell said these could result in departments improving - or ceasing to function.

The survey involved invitations being sent to all 287,425 students who were finishing courses last spring.

Officials at the Higher Education Funding Council for England (Hefce), which commissioned it, were delighted with the overall response rate of more than 60%.

The students answered 21 questions in six groups, relating to:

  • teaching
  • assessment and feedback
  • academic support
  • organisation and management
  • learning resources
  • personal development
A final question involved overall satisfaction.

Answers were scored 1 to 5.

This has produced satisfaction ratings for 41 subjects in 19 categories at 141 higher education institutions, though not all had a sufficient response rate to be included.

One intriguing aspect noted by officials at Hefce is that the overall satisfaction rating was often higher than the average of the other questions.

Boycotts by student unions at Cambridge, Oxford and Warwick who were suspicious of the exercise resulted in response rates well below 30% which means they do not feature.

Bill Rammell said he found their attitude "quite inexplicable".

Julian Nicholds of the National Union of Students, which was a partner in the project, said it had spoken to the individual student leaders concerned and their successors in an effort to get a better participation next time around.

Because Scotland is doing a different, incompatible student survey, Scottish universities are not included.

Mr Rammell said he wanted to discuss this with his counterparts on the Scottish Executive.

Internal reviews

Overall satisfaction ranges from 4.5 at the Open University down to 3.5 at the University of the Arts London.

Some of the results are counter-intuitive in terms of what you might expect
Bill Rammell
Higher Education Minister
For teaching quality, the OU is joint top on 4.3 with Birkbeck and the College of St Mark and St John, while London Metropolitan and Middlesex are bottom on 3.7.

Hefce's chief executive, Sir Howard Newby, said institutions would want to look at how student satisfaction ratings varied between the different subjects they offered - indeed they were already doing so.

Sir Howard said the provision of more information for prospective students had assumed even greater importance with the introduction of higher fees from next year.

Much of what they currently received was "promotional" - now, as consumers, customers and clients, they would have a greater range of disinterested information.

At risk

Mr Rammell said it was about "empowering" students and he had been struck by the seriousness with which institutions were taking the findings.

Over time, results would show which of them were not "coming up to scratch" and would have to improve or "cease to function effectively".

"I have some evidence, which is anecdotal, that some of the results are counter-intuitive in terms of what you might expect," he said.

"If that's the case that would be a positive thing."

Using the TQI website, students can select a proposed subject of study then put institutions offering that subject into a virtual "basket" - like in an online shop.

They can then compare up to six at a time on the basis of the student survey and a raft of other data such as the actual Ucas points students had when they began their courses, what degree results they achieved.

In a pilot version, parents and students had also been interested to look at what sort of employment graduates went into.

What you cannot do in any simple way is choose a subject and ask, in effect, "who does this best?"

Nor, at this stage, is there any cross-referencing with data on tuition fees or bursaries.

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