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Striking effect

Chris Hanretty explores why industrial action is unlikely to affect student satisfaction

Strikes are threatened at 58 universities next month and industrial action short of a strike at a further six, after a series of ballots over pay, pensions, casualisation, workloads and inequality.

At many universities, voters only met the 50 per cent turnout requirement by the skin of their teeth. Others only just missed it. At University College London, 50.1 per cent of those eligible cast a ballot, while two miles to the east, at City, University of London, the turnout requirement was missed by one vote.

The University and College Union is planning to re-ballot some branches and has said that the three-day strike planned between 1 and 3 December will be “just the start of sustained disruption for the sector” if employers fail to negotiate.

Lessons from the past

If there is industrial action, how much is it likely to matter for these universities’ positions in league tables—particularly league tables based in part on measures of student satisfaction, such as the National Student Survey? Students’ responses to past industrial action suggest it will not matter much.

Between November 2019 and March 2020, University and College Union members went on strike at just over 58 institutions. After the strike, students across the country were asked as part of the NSS whether, overall, they were satisfied with the quality of their course.

We could compare satisfaction in universities where there was industrial action to satisfaction in universities where there was no strike action, but this would be misleading. Maybe lecturers turn out to vote at higher rates when there are other problems at their university—problems that preceded the strike but are picked up in NSS results.

A better comparison is to look at universities that just passed or just failed to meet the turnout requirement. If we look at the 40 universities with a turnout of between 45 and 55 per cent in the 2019 ballot, we find that the percentage of students saying they were satisfied actually increased by around one percentage point in institutions that went on strike.

Focusing on universities just below or above the turnout cutoff means giving up some degree of certainty because of the smaller numbers involved. Although our best guess is that strikes increased student satisfaction, these results are consistent with strikes damaging student satisfaction by two and a half percentage points as well as strikes boosting satisfaction by six percentage points—in other words, the differences between universities that narrowly met the turnout requirement and those that narrowly missed it are not ‘statistically significant’. So it would probably be unwise for a vice-chancellor to encourage staff to go on strike with a view to boosting NSS results.

The effects of the strike in 2019 might also be different from the effects of a strike in spring 2022. One possible explanation for why satisfaction did not decrease in response to strikes is because lecturers had maintained a reservoir of goodwill with their final-year students. But fostering or maintaining that goodwill is harder over Teams and Zoom than it is in person.

Wasted effort

While the findings about the limited effects of industrial action on student satisfaction might be comforting for senior managers in institutions that are likely to go on strike, they do raise less comforting questions for higher education as a whole. Universities put a great deal of effort into ensuring that their NSS scores are as good as possible—so much effort that the Office for Students maintains a webpage about what constitutes “inappropriate influence” in the context of the survey.

Universities make these efforts because they believe—often without strong evidence—that better NSS scores will lead to more applications, and because (for all but the most capacity-constrained of institutions) more applications means more money.

But these findings imply that much of this effort is wasted. If a significant disruption in teaching fails to damage NSS scores, what is the likely effect of providing free mugs or sweet treats for those who fill out the survey on time?

What does affect satisfaction

There was, of course, one recent disruption that did have a significant effect on student satisfaction.

In the NSS for 2021—the first survey year affected by the coronavirus pandemic—student satisfaction declined by eight percentage points. This might be evidence that disruptions to teaching do in fact affect student satisfaction, except that the pandemic disrupted many more things than just teaching. It had an immediate and severe impact on students’ social lives.

Not all students were equally affected by this, and the impacts were greatest on those living at or near campus universities, and lowest for distance learners. Indeed, satisfaction for distance learners barely changed in 2021.

It seems that students, rather than responding to a difficult question about satisfaction with their course, answer a slightly different question about whether they are satisfied with their university experience—a much broader concept, encompassing many things for which universities are not responsible.

How to solve it

The best solution would be for the NSS simply to omit the overall satisfaction question, since it doesn’t seem to be responsive to course-related disruption but does seem to be strongly related to tears in universities’ social fabric.

This is an option that has been canvassed as part of the Office for Students’ review of the NSS, although there remains the possibility of a “summative question” or “aggregate score”, which could fulfil some of the functions currently served by the satisfaction question.

For the moment, though, no-one—neither the unions nor senior management—should worry too much about the impact of possible strikes on student satisfaction.

Chris Hanretty is a professor of politics at Royal Holloway, University of London.