Lies, damn lies and Unistats

5 Sep

I have a good sense of timing (though others will find my decision baffling).

I have just left a university job having helped put a new course on the map and having achieved a 100% student satisfaction score.

What was I thinking?

I use these stats so no one can accuse me of sour grapes for what I’m about to say.

I should also say that I was a reluctant convert to the current fees arrangement because I believe that universities should be properly funded and feel that a system that is in effect a graduate tax is fairer on everyone than raising general taxation so that a lawyer’s daughter can train to become a doctor at everyone else’s expense.

So I’m not opposed to everything that’s happened in HE in the last decade. But ‘student satisfaction’ is a monster. Let me explain why.

Once you create a market, you unleash the power of marketing. Just look at the amount universities spend on media advertising.

What a marketing-led approach to HE means is that all energies must be devoted to student recruitment (putting on a smile at open days). Once recruited, these students must be retained (so no low marks or fails, please – and do avoid being so boring in lectures). Ultimately, they must be kept happy for three or more years in preparation to the annual National Student Survey taken by final year undergraduates.

It’s true that these are best placed to evaluate their course across three years. But it’s also true that they’re focused on getting the highest degree classification with the lowest amount of risk. So no low marks or critical feedback on semester one assignments, please!

Look around our universities. The bright, primary (school) colours are all about the ‘student experience’. The higher fees have resulted in a building boom to improve facilities – and there’s a huge industry making large profits out of student accommodation in our big cities (again, look for the brightly-coloured buildings in city centres).

The safe spaces, no-platforming, puppy-petting culture is another sign of our student-centred world.

Now, where do lecturers fit into this? To university managers they are a cost. To many students they are the difficult people who set challenging assignments and give critical feedback. Why don’t lecturers simply explain how to do the assignment well?

In a perfect world of student satisfaction and university profitability, you’d do away with them. Except…

I’ve told bosses that you can either have high student satisfaction or be a university. Education is messy; it’s challenging. It involves asking difficult questions. It demands risk taking. It’s wasteful.

So much easier to put the money into marketing.

Then there’s the use of the stats. Every course at every university will look through their NSS results and cherry pick the high marks. So everyone’s a winner!

I share these stats because they look exceptionally good. But look down and there are some concerns:

Marking and assessment has been fair: 62%

‘It’s not fair! I tried really hard and you didn’t give me the mark I wanted!’

So, in order to improve my NSS results I’d have to allow students to mark their own work (that’s only fair). Now you see why the number of Firsts have increased year on year.

If I were in the same job next year, I’d be sitting in front of some university managers explaining why my student satisfaction scores had gone down. I’d have to show the plan I wrote this summer to improve on 100%. No, really.

There are good courses out there; there are good universities providing a supportive environment for good teachers. But you couldn’t tell that just from the student satisfaction results.

In a world of university marketing, everyone is putting on their best show. For prospective students and their parents it’s a case of ‘caveat emptor’.

Sorry, I shouldn’t use archaic language (think of student satisfaction).

In world of marketing, it’s a case of ‘buyer beware’.

Now, was I good at explaining this? I have a 100% score to maintain. How was my teaching today?

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