The Changing Policy Context and Demand for Data on Students

The range of data gathered on students has expanded significantly over the years (see Table 1 for the types of student surveys and examples). The basic statistical data on students has typically included data on student enrollments and student

Table 1 Most common student surveys

Types of surveys

Examples of most influential or international surveys

Student profiles


Assessment of student learning outcomes

OECD's Assessment of Higher Education Learning Outcomes (AHELO)b; United States Collegiate Learning Assessment (CLA) (Shavelson 2010), The Educational Testing Services' Proficiency Profile (ETS 2014; Coates and Lennon 2014)

Student course evaluations


Student approaches to learning and studying

ASSIST (Approaches and Study Skills Inventory for Students)c; The Study Process Questionnaire (Biggs 1987a); The Learning Process Questionnaire (Biggs 1987c)

Student experience (satisfaction) and engagement surveys

The North American National Survey of Student Engagement (NSSE)d, which has been adapted into a number NSSE-based national surveyse; Australasian Survey of Student Engagement (AUSSE)f; Student Experience in the Research University (SERU)g; National Student Survey in the UK (NSS)h; Dutch National Student Survey (NSE)i; Irish Survey of Student Engagement (ISSE)j

Student mobility surveys

International Student Barometer Surveyk

Graduate employment surveys

Accenture College Graduate Employment Surveyl


eNSSE-based surveys were administered in Australia, China, South Africa, the UK, Ireland and several other countries (Coates and McCormick 2014)


profiles (gender, nationality, socio-economic background). Later, student course evaluations were introduced, followed by data on student approaches to learning, and assessment of student learning. Within European policy context, the EU support for the large international comparative survey on students' socio-economic background reflects the European Unions' concerns over educational equity. Surveys focusing specifically on the experience of international students also emerged following the internationalisation of higher education, and especially EU mobility schemes (Erasmus) and the efforts by institutions and government to attract foreign fee-paying students.

Within the European Higher Education Area, the emphasis on the student-centered approach paved the way for further and more extensive inquiries into how students learn (through surveys of student approaches to learning), what we expect them to learn (e.g. Tuning project defining learning outcomes and competences in specific study areas[1] and the European Qualifications Framework[2]), and how do we know that expected learning happened (Coates and Lennon 2014). As student learning and development became more closely associated with institutional quality, this boosted higher education research on student satisfaction, and student engagement in educationally purposeful activities.

The origins of student satisfaction surveys lie in student evaluations of course teaching (Ramsden 1991), which have a fairly long tradition in all higher education systems. These evaluations have been gradually extended to also include student perceptions on quality of institutional conditions supporting teaching and learning, such as libraries, student support services, etc. As Harvey (2003, p. 3) suggests, institutional decisions makers seek feedback from students. Harvey (2003, p. 3) defines “feedback” as the “expressed opinions of students about the service they receive as students”, and this may include “perceptions about the learning and teaching, the learning support facilities (such as libraries, computing facilities), the learning environment, (lecture rooms, laboratories, social space and university buildings), support facilities (refectories, student accommodation, health facilities, student services) and external aspects of being a student (such as finance, transport infrastructure)”. The levels of analysis have also extended from individual courses to modules, and study programs to institution-level satisfaction surveys of the entire study experience (see Harvey 2003 for recommendations for survey management at each level). Both student course and program evaluations, which are more focused on satisfaction with teaching and learning, and the surveys of overall study experience, have been integrated into—and are an essential ingredient of—internal institutional quality assurance systems. Indeed, the European University Association's study shows that student questionnaires “are the most common way for institutions to introduce quality assurance processes” (Loukolla and Zhang 2010, p. 27). Reports from the student satisfaction surveys are also required in external quality assurance processes and accreditation.

However, student satisfaction surveys have been criticized for conceiving students as passive recipients of educational services, rather than actively engaged in their learning and development. This criticism gave rise to developments of student engagement surveys. Unlike student satisfaction surveys, the assessment of student engagement measures the extent to which students participate in educationallypurposeful activities (i.e. those that are expected to enhance learning and development), and the support they receive from teachers and institutions to do so (Kuh 2009). Many have argued in favor of investigating student engagement for higher education quality assurance (Coates 2005), and the concept of student engagement has become “central to most contemporary understandings of student experience and to debates regarding quality enhancement” (Callender et al. 2014, p. 31).

Quality enhancement, which has a predominant place among the policy priorities within the European Higher Education Area, has important implications for data collection on student experience and engagement. Student engagement and experience surveys have been hailed as a driver of institutional reforms towards improvement in students' experience, for example through improvements in student support services, student facilities, and in teaching and assessment (Richardson 2013). Student survey data is increasingly used also for external purposes. Governments use such data as part of accountability checks on institutional performance (Klemenčič et al. 2015). The existing measures of institutional performance have relied predominantly on the attainment levels (graduation rates, retention rates). The trend now is to evaluate the institutional performance also from the point of view of the added value that higher education brings to the students individually and collectively. One way to assess this is to ask students directly about their experiences. The other way is to assess student learning outcomes so as to establish if knowledge and skills are of expected standards, and meet the employers' expectations and the needs of knowledge societies. Data obtained directly from students as the primary users of the educational services is seen as more accurate estimate of the performance of the higher education institutions than when performance is measured only by student attainment (cf. Kim and Lalancette 2013).

The proliferation of student surveys is thus part of the growing trend towards evidence-based movement in higher education with focus on institutional performance. It is also a reflection of growing competition in higher education. Institutions also gather data from students to benchmark their performance against peer institutions. They use survey data in public relations and recruitment. Governments use student experience surveys as a “transparency tool” to inform students' choice in rising competition between higher education providers to attract fee-paying students (Harvey 2003). Notably, global ranking agencies so far do not put a lot of pressure on universities to collect and provide student-related data despite the fact that all of them declare they are created to inform students' choices in higher education.[3] An exception is the recent international ranking initiative U-Multirank which includes data both from universities and from these universities' students.[4] In sum, focus on quality for enhancement and accountability drive the use of student surveys. This trend is accelerated by the increased competition for students in market-driven higher education systems.

  • [1]
  • [2]
  • [3] Among the “Big Three” of international league tables—Academic Ranking of World Universities, Times Higher Education World University Rankings and QS World University Rankings—only the latter two actually include student data. At the moment it is only general information about student enrollments, the number of doctoral and international students
  • [4] In U-Multirank, higher education institutions are asked to report data on students enrolled in degree programs, international students, new entrants of degree programs, students in internships, graduates and their employability. An important source of information for this ranking is a student survey, which is administered to 500 students in each field at participating institutions. The questionnaire is focused on student satisfaction and comprises questions aimed at evaluation of university services and quality of teaching
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