Student engagement has become a key feature of UK higher education, but until recently there has been a lack of data to track, benchmark and drive enhancement. In 2015 the first full administration ran in the UK a range of survey items drawn from the US-based National Survey of Student Engagement (NSSE). This is the latest example of international adaptations of NSSE, and was prompted by the need to collect actionable data, related to core elements of learning and teaching, that can be used for institutional improvement efforts. This paper describes the background and development of the UK Engagement Survey, focusing on the two pilot years in 2013 and 2014 and the full administration phase in 2015. This involved a complementary mix of qualitative and quantitative data analysis, and engagement with students in the testing process. Cognitive testing was conducted with 85 students over two years and data from the full 2015 administration involved 24,387 students. The political context of student engagement in relation to national satisfaction surveys, and the implications of running a generalist-based survey in a subject-specific higher education context are discussed.