Applicants love to hear from students so how we capture their views matters

Wednesday 31 August 2022, Higher education

by Carys Willgoss, Principal Policy Adviser, UCAS 

Applicants love to hear from students so how we capture their views matters

Carys Willgoss, Principal Policy Adviser, UCAS 

The latest consultation on changes to the National Student Survey (NSS) could be summarised as evolution, not revolution. This phase covers several thematic areas, building on findings from earlier stages of the review, dating back to 2020. Nonetheless, applicants consistently speak of the value of hearing from current students. For example, when we asked this year’s applicants how important certain factors were in deciding which universities or colleges to apply to, 88% told us that good student reviews were ‘extremely important’ or ‘important.’

This means that ensuring that the NSS remains fit for purpose as an information tool will be critical to UCAS’ objective of inspiring and empowering people to discover the next step. This is complementary to our own growing survey expertise whereby regular and bespoke surveys alongside more in-depth insight reports allow us to capture and promote student views, make recommendations for policy change, and shape and evolve our products and services. Our response is four-fold.


Support for additional data about mental wellbeing

Firstly, we welcome the proposal to introduce a new question about mental wellbeing – any data that gives a broader understanding of students’ awareness of mental wellbeing support in higher education (HE) is positive.

Our research shows that students who share an existing mental health condition in the UCAS application are more likely to be aware of support available at university or college, are more likely to access it, and more likely to find that support helpful when compared to those who did not share. This suggests that there is a link between awareness of support and whether the student feels comfortable sharing this information – or has the support network which allows them to feel safe doing so.

That’s why we are currently exploring how we can better support students by directly signposting to a provider’s support via UCAS’ search tool. We would also welcome a further discussion around research opportunities to explore how NSS outcomes may relate to the challenges we see at application stage.


Any changes to the NSS must enable a more accurate capturing of students’ views

Secondly, our view on the potential to reform response scales is more cautious. The proposed move from a five-point to a four-point response scale may restrict students’ choice to express any neutral opinions they may hold and could increase positive responses. As such, UCAS is keen to work with the Office for Students (OfS) and the funding councils in the devolved nations to concept test the proposed change to response scales to ensure it will achieve the aim of more accurate data capture.


The benefits of maintaining UK-wide coverage for the NSS

Thirdly, we continue to champion consistency in information, advice, and guidance provision across the UK. That’s why we are concerned that the suggested removal of the summative question for England will create inconsistency in the availability of information. Given that tens of thousands of students each year, rising to 33,000 in 2021, explore options across borders, this would influence the usefulness of the data set as an information tool for prospective students.

In a similar vein, individuals studying apprenticeships through employer and training provider partnerships, Level 4/5 study, and credit-based study, will sit outside of its scope. Such incompleteness in coverage will naturally hinder its usefulness for some students.


Personalisation will underpin UCAS’ future use of NSS data as part of careers education

Finally, we outline our future use of NSS data as part of careers education. At UCAS, personalisation underpins our approach to information and advice, with students registering via the UCAS Hub – now used by 92% of students – early in their research and embarking upon their own individual journey based on their preferences and circumstances.

As part of upcoming developments for the Hub, personalisation will see us make greater use of more granular outcomes data, including that derived from the NSS. This is important because different individuals will be interested in different types of data; for example, for example, UCAS research has previously identified that mature students (aged 25+) are more sensitive to the financial impact of tuition fees and the cost of travelling between their home and their place of study.

UCAS is a student-centric organisation with one of the UK’s largest student audiences – receives 30 million unique visits per year and more than 1 million young people aged 16 and upwards register with us each year, exploring higher education, apprenticeships, and early careers. As we accelerate our ambitions to create a fully personalised experience for applicants, we will present students with the data that matters to them at that point in their research journey.