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Are Unhappy Students Spreading a Negative Message About Your University? | HE Research Snippet #30

In March this year, a student sued Anglia Ruskin University for her ‘Mickey Mouse’ degree which, she claimed, did not prepare her for future employment. “The

Tags: HE Thinking

Andreanne Orsier, Higher Education Research Team
Andreanne Orsier, Higher Education Research Team

Andréanne heads up YouthSight’s Higher Education research team and helps universities drive commercial success.

In March this year, a student sued Anglia Ruskin University for her ‘Mickey Mouse’ degree which, she claimed, did not prepare her for future employment. “The prospectus convinced me that the university is really impressive,” she said, “But, as soon as I started in 2011, I realised there were failings.”

The story attracted national press coverage and debate. Whether she was right to take legal action or not, it brings up an important point for HEIs: there are few voices more powerful than those of unhappy students.

In 2017, student complaints about universities grew by 8% (totaling 1,635), and £650,000 was paid in compensation. More than ever, unhappy students are taking action against universities and spreading negative messages, potentially seriously impacting recruitment, retention, and reputation.

At some UK universities, up to a third of undergraduates are unhappy with their experience. Meanwhile, official student complaints are soaring. With exclusive insight into our data, this month we share key pain points for detractors and outline what you can do to make things better.


Students cite “poor” and “awful” experiences

At YouthSight, we collect regular data on student satisfaction. One question we ask in our Higher Expectation subscription product is the classic Net Promoter Score question: How likely would you be to recommend your current university to others?

Those that rank their university 9-10 are considered ‘promoters.’ Scores of 7-8 are passive - neither satisfied or dissatisfied. But scores of 0-6 are considered ‘detractors.’ They are unhappy with their university and are at risk of spreading a negative message.

 University detractorst2

Question text: How likely would you be to recommend your current university to others? Higher Expectations, 2017. Base size: 11,000 interviews of first year students.

Would your students recommend their university? Get in touch to find out your detractor percentage. 

See your university’s detractor percentage >


According to our data, 13% of new undergraduates are detractors, and they have strong, negative feelings. 85% of those detractors describe their experience as “poor” or “awful.” Not only do detractors risk damaging your reputation through word-of-mouth, they are more likely to drop out2. which has serious financial implications as well as leaving a bitter taste for the institution and more significantly for the (ex) student.


A failure to meet expectations

Our data confirms that negative feelings are often born out of unmet expectations. As one detractor told us,

“My course seemed built up to be something it isn’t.” - Higher Expectations 2016/17, question text: Why are you not very likely to recommend this institution to someone considering university? 2016, Student at Glasgow Caledonian University.


In the worst cases, this can explode into high-profile lawsuits.

Detractors were most likely to say their course didn’t meet expectations (42%), but they also cite the lack of social life (33%) and student support (31%) for their ill-feelings.


Detractors feel their university failed to meet expectations in the following areas:

  The course Social life Student support/ university dealings Campus facilities Cost of university Campus location
Detractors 42% 33% 31% 26% 26% 20%

(Higher Expectations 2016/17: Sat2a, question text: To what extent have your expectations been met in the following areas? Only ‘detractors’ tabled. Filter: ‘Doesn’t meet expectations.’ Base size: 30,882. Copyright, YouthSight 2018.)


HEIs should not exaggerate claims about their courses, rankings or facilities. This is a growing problem in the HE sector; just last year, six universities were forced to remove exaggerated claims in their prospectus by the Advertising Watchdog.


Some universities do better than others

The average percent of dissatisfied undergrads is 13%, but the figure swings wildly between institutions. Some universities have as many as 33% dissatisfied students, while others have as few as 2%.


University detractors charted

The universities above the average line are at risk of higher dropout rates and a poor reputation.

Want to know where your institution sits in our chart? To find out your detractor percentage, get in touch.

See my university’s detractor percentage >


How can you do better?

  • While tracking your student satisfaction performance in the NSS is vital, it reveals only part of the picture. The final year of study is a bit late in the day to be responding to problems!  Instead we recommend looking at the satisfaction of each new starting cohort. Higher Expectations help you do this.
  • As well as tracking your performance over time it is important that you benchmark your performance against your competitors. Higher Expectations supplies the latest year plus over 10 years of back data and allows you to compare your performance to any other single HEI, HEIs or aggregate groups of HEIs.
  • Don’t just celebrate your successes, take stock of your unhappy students and ask what you could do better.
  • Nail your communications – be meticulously accurate about course descriptions, expectations and outcomes.
  • Provide support - new students often feel lost and isolated, leading to feelings of negativity. Ensure all freshers have adequate information and offer mentoring programs, counseling and support.


See my university’s detractor percentage >