Leader: Exit the comfort zone

To truly satisfy students, the academy must push them to go for the burn intellectually, not mollycoddle them

March 8, 2012

Until relatively recently, students who wanted to let their lecturer or university know what they thought of them had limited options. They could tell the tutor to their face, perhaps make a formal representation to the university, then go to the complaints watchdog - or scrawl something rude on the lavatory wall.

Today, through websites such as RateMyProfessors.com (the digital equivalent of the aforementioned wall) and regular student surveys, their opinions are far more assiduously sought. Fair enough, you might say. But in our cover story, Frank Furedi characterises the UK's National Student Survey as a canker that is eating away at the academic profession. The problems he outlines are numerous. At the most basic level, the annual exercise has become too time-consuming, with academics expected to invest huge amounts of energy in cajoling their students to participate - and to be kind in their responses.

Universities also indulge in all sorts of game-playing, from financial rewards for departments that hit targets to the outright fiddles that have cropped up over the years.

The centrally funded NSS, which this year will cost £2.1 million to administer, is "deeply intrusive and destructive", Furedi argues, as it "has as its target the modification of everyday academic life". Unlike other audits, the survey "does not merely demand accountability, but directly challenges the identity of a scholar".

And Furedi, professor of sociology at the University of Kent, argues that it is not only the academic profession that is being damaged but student learning, too. The focus on "satisfaction" encourages the subordination of education, he suggests, infantilising students by asking not what they need but what they want.

It is interesting, in light of this argument, to compare the NSS with surveys carried out in other countries. Noticeably absent from the UK poll is any mention of workload.

In the National Survey of Student Engagement, which runs in Canada and the US, the focus is not on satisfaction but learning. Students are asked about both the number and the length of essays they have written, and whether they have ever worked harder than they thought they could in order to meet tutors' expectations. They are also quizzed on their levels of engagement with staff, such as whether they have discussed ideas from readings or classes with faculty outside class.

In many ways these are the more pertinent - and harder - questions: satisfaction counts for little if students are not being pushed to learn. As Furedi puts it: "By the time they are 18, it is better that they face a challenging intellectual experience than merely be given smiley faces for making token efforts."

Students, he says, need to be put under intellectual pressure, something that is not always a comfortable or happy experience but one that will benefit them academically. In an age of £9,000 fees, universities may find that undergraduates agree.

Some expect students to adopt "consumerist" attitudes under the new funding regime, but that does not mean they want to be mollycoddled. Treat them as engaged adults who want to be pushed out of their comfort zone, and universities might be surprised by the satisfaction that follows.

john.gill@tsleducation.com.

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