The Office for Students (OfS) released its 2023 National Student Survey last week. It is an independent survey which gathers final year undergraduate students’ opinions on the quality of their course and has a consistently high response rate. This year had a 71.5 per cent response rate from 339,383 students.
The University of Sheffield, University of Warwick and Imperial College London had the highest positive responses for academic experience, mental wellbeing, resources and support. Professor Koen Lamberts, the President and Vice-Chancellor of the University of Sheffield said this was a “testament to the hard work of our staff and the positive work of Sheffield Students’ Union. We really value feedback from our students as it provides important insights into how we can improve. We will use the survey responses to further develop the student experience we offer here at Sheffield.”
One of the most notable takeaways from this year’s survey was a new question included for the first time, which asked students in England how free they felt to express their ideas, opinions and beliefs, and received around 280,000 responses. Almost 9 in 10 students responded they felt free to express themselves on campus, with 38 per cent saying they felt very free, and 48 per cent saying they felt free, meaning 86 per cent responded positively. Of all the questions asked by the OFS in this year’s survey, this was among the most positive outcomes.
This question follows the passage of the Higher Education (Freedom of Speech) Act, which was introduced earlier this year with the aim of protecting freedom of speech and academic freedom on university campuses. The government said the bill would bring about a “change of culture” on university campuses and allow students to be able to speak freely in and out of the classroom, whilst also offering protection to academics who teach material that may offend some students. The aim was to enable conversations about disagreements on complex or sensitive subjects in a “constructive manner”. Following this, the OfS appointed a new Director for Freedom of Speech and Academic Freedom, or “free speech tsar”, Arif Ahmed, to implement the legislation.
The survey result appears to counteract the narrative put forth by some MPs and commentators suggesting freedom of expression within university campuses, especially for individuals holding differing viewpoints on sensitive subjects like race and gender, has been under threat.
There have been other important changes to this year’s survey compared to previous ones, including the removal of the option to give a neutral response. David Kernohan, from the higher education debate platform Wonkhe, said this has significantly impacted this year’s results, meaning it was more difficult to compare this year’s cohorts’ experience to previous years. This is especially true considering this year’s students have experienced multiple issues relating to the pandemic, the cost-of-living crisis and ongoing industrial action.
Meanwhile, the responses to questions about mental health demonstrate why this issue should garner increased attention. 25 per cent of students feel information regarding mental well-being had not been communicated well enough. With the next general election approaching, Labour has made it clear mental health is something they will be prioritising, as seen with the elevation of Shadow Minister for Mental Health to a Shadow Cabinet position in May 2021. As this could then become a Cabinet position if Labour wins the next election, this issue has the potential to gain traction on the election trail next year.