UU threatening to quit National Student Questionnaire

'How satisfied are you with your programme?' Foto: DUB

How happy are you about the workload of your study programme? Does the content of your programme match the image you had of it before you started? And in how far are you content with the level of expertise of your teachers? It’s a small sampling of the questions posed in the National Student Questionnaire (NSE). The Ministry of Education subsidises the annual study amongst students based on the idea that objective information about study programmes and institutions contributes to the quality and transparency of higher education. Prospective students can use the results to help choose what they wish to study, as the results form part of the basis of the Keuzegids (a guide to help choose a study programme), as well as the Elsevier ranking. Universities and universities of applied sciences can also use the questionnaire’s results to improve the quality of education.

The straw that broke the camel’s back
Every year, the UU asks its students to fill out the questionnaire. Around one in three students actually does so. But within the university, dissatisfaction with the NSE abounds. Co-determination groups, among others, have been wondering aloud for longer whether it wouldn’t be better for the UU to quit the NSE, or at least take the results less seriously. They criticise the way the NSE questions are posed. There’s also discussion about whether you should measure the quality of education by students’ contentment in the first place. Furthermore, some say you can manipulate the NSE results: teachers are said to ask their students to fill out the questionnaire with positive feedback, because it’s good for the study programme and for the value of their diplomas.

Still, the UU board has never actually considered not participating in the study – until last week, when rector Henk Kummeling, in a conversation with the University Council’s educational committee, said the UU might not participate in the NSE next year. The UU has long held different points of view than the Studiekeuze123 foundation, which conducts the study, about several points. Accepting entirely anonymous responses is the straw that broke the camel’s back.

‘NSE results unusable’
The UU stresses there’s no discussion about whether students’ privacy should be respected, but there is discussion about how to do so. The data protection officers of Dutch universities would like to see the NSE work with so-called informed consent. With informed consent, students are informed before filling out the NSE that their own university can view part of their personal information, which information that is, and who can access that information. When students fill out the questionnaire, they automatically accept these terms.

The Studiekeuze123 foundation thinks students aren’t sufficiently informed about privacy rights this way, and therefore asks students beforehand whether they’d like to fill out the questionnaire anonymously. This is to ensure even students who don’t wish for their personal data to be used by their educational institution will still fill out the questionnaire. As a result, an average 30 percent of participating students chose to remain anonymous.

The UU says this makes the results unusable in regards to improving the quality of education, says Renée Filius. The head of educational policy of the department of Academic Affairs supports this statement with three examples. For one, it’s no longer possible to see how a study programme scores throughout the years, as the data has been mathematically contaminated. It’s also no longer possible to look at experiences of, for instance, freshmen only. And lastly, institutions can only see the scores of a Master’s programme in its entirety, and not what students think of programmes within a Master’s degree.

‘A shame if the UU were to quit’
Filius and Kummeling say no longer participating in the NSE, and choosing to hold a UU-made questionnaire amongst students instead, is something to ‘seriously consider’. Kummeling hopes, however, that Studiekeuze123 will address the wishes and concerns the UU has – which, he says, are shared widely at other universities as well. The rector calls for universities who share his feelings to join hands in developing a new questionnaire in case this ends up being necessary.

Pauline Thoolen, head of information management at Studiekeuze123, says it’d be a shame if the UU were to quit the NSE. The UU would then no longer be visible on the website for high school students choosing a study programme. “Utrecht University is a large university. If it were to quit participating in the NSE, we wouldn’t be able to provide prospective students reading our Study Chooser with information about how happy students are about UU programmes. The NSE is a national questionnaire, and if we don’t have all educational institutions participating, we can’t make as many comparisons. It’s also at the expense of the national, representative image about the development of student satisfaction. It would definitely be a shame if the university chooses to quit.”

‘NSE can’t meet the needs of the university in all aspects’
Thoolen: “Studiekeuze123 conducts the NSE with subsidies given to us by the Ministry of Education with the goal of creating a national source of information for prospective students. The results may give reason to have additional discussions with students. Is something the matter here, and if yes, what is it? A national instrument like the NSE can’t be quality research that meets all needs of individual universities and universities of applied sciences – like in the line of questioning, for example.” The UU, she says, shouldn’t withdraw from the NSE if the only reason to do so is that the study is fragmentary.

The head of information management acknowledges that, for universities, valuable information has been anonymised much more than it had been in previous years. This is a result of the new privacy laws. One consequence is that this past year, universities were no longer able to see of thirty percent of respondents whether they were freshmen or upperclassmen. Their opinions have been taken into account when constructing the general assessment of a study programme or institution, but can’t be split between first-years and later-years. Thoolen says Filius’ criticism, that universities can’t see what students feel about a programme within a Master’s programme, is partially unfounded. “Studiekeuze123 has given the universities additional information they can use to track programmes within Master’s programmes. The only time it’s not possible to do this, is when a group has fewer than five students, or if the information is traceable.”

‘Anonymisation offers a platform to the whole target group’
Tholen says it’s wrong to say that up until this year, the university received more information. The head of information management thinks the UU in fact receives even the information from students who prefer to remain anonymous. “These are students who wouldn’t have participated if their data are given to the university. Those are students the university doesn’t have information about. Studiekeuze123 has found ways within the limits of the privacy laws to let all students voice their thoughts. So we’re not limiting, but in fact have taken a step to let as many students as possible respond to the questionnaire.”

The numbers, however, don’t show an increase in the number of respondents. In the past year, fewer students participated than before: 36.2 percent this year versus 38.6 percent in 2017, and 42.9 percent the year before that.

NSE-no or NSE-yes?
Still, Studiekeuze123 and the UU aren’t diametrically opposed. Both stress it’s important to ask students what they feel about their study programme and institution, in order to improve quality and to ensure proper information for high school students. Renée Filius: “Students’ voices need to be heard, and we want to keep providing prospective students with proper information.” But, says the head of educational policy of the department of Academic Affairs, the way this happens is what’s being discussed at the moment.

By mid-November, the UU has to make a definitive choice on whether the university will participate in the 2019 National Student Questionnaire. If the UU decides to participate, the questionnaire will be sent out in January 2019.