Student engagement is defined by two key concepts; first, what students do (the time and energy they devote to educationally purposeful activities), and second, what institutions do (the extent to which institutions employ effective educational practices to induce students to do the right things).

The National Survey of Student Engagement (NSSE) was developed by the NSSE Institute at Indiana University, Bloomington, USA, partly in reaction to inaccurate measures of 'quality' used by the media in the USA to rank higher-education institutions. Based on decades of research, the NSSE aimed to refer discussions about quality in higher education back to students and their learning.

In 2006, the division of Student Development and Success (now incorporated in the Centre for Teaching and Learning, or CTL) at the University of the Free State (UFS) requested permission from the NSSE Institute to adapt the NSSE for use in South Africa. This version, the South African Survey of Student Engagement (SASSE), was administered for the first time for field testing in 2007. A revised edition of SASSE (2.0) was rolled out in 2013 and in 2017, the SASSE was piloted in Namibia as the Southern African Survey of Student Engagement.