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Listening to student voices

Professor Eric Thomas at a University open day in June

Professor Eric Thomas at a University open day in June Paul Box

24 September 2008

The University's Vice Chancellor, Professor Eric Thomas, on the results of the fourth annual National Student Survey and what they mean for Bristol.

On the one hand, 83 per cent of our students – a massive majority and two per cent more than the national median – declared themselves to be satisfied with the overall quality of their programme of study. In 13 subject areas, the satisfaction rating was 90 per cent or higher. Such results would be the envy of any other sector, and are a glowing tribute to all the academic and support staff involved.

On the other hand, in 12 subject areas the overall satisfaction level was below the national median – in a very small number of cases, well below. Furthermore, the NSS results suggest that in many of our subject areas there is still significant room for improvement in assessment and feedback, in learning resources and in support for students’ personal development.

How to respond to the NSS? One could seek to question its validity – to construct an argument that the methodology is faulty, or that the survey makes no allowance for the possibility that Bristol students have unusually high expectations. Or one could decide that, valid or not, the NSS can safely be ignored because Bristol continues to be one of the most popular universities in the land and is, to all intents and purposes, invulnerable. We most certainly will not respond in these ways.

Our students are the very centre of our purpose as a university and it is axiomatic that we should give them the best experience possible. The purpose of that experience is to develop them intellectually to the best of their ability so that they can go on to become both personally fulfilled and the leaders of their generation. If they are saying there are areas where we are not delivering that experience as well as they would wish, we must listen, investigate and change. The relationship between the University and its students is quite different from that between, say, a shop and its customers, and the students have told us they wish to be part of a community, not consumers. However, no organisation can thrive if it fails to listen and respond positively to its community. This is especially important to remember if we wish to continue to attract applicants of the right intellectual quality.

So the University will not rest on its laurels. We are improving our approach to assessment and feedback, enhancing a number of our libraries and taking fresh initiatives on personal and skills development for students. Why? Because we have a strong desire and a duty to do the very best we can for our students within the resources available. If the NSS has helped to highlight areas that are in need of ongoing improvement (as well as many that are of outstanding quality), it has done us all a service.  


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