Staff at the mercy of satisfaction scores

June 12, 2014

As a University of Surrey graduate – and later a professor, member of council and senate, and chair of the academic assembly there – could I say how deeply moved I am to know that it is leading the way in modernising the assessment of its teaching? (“UCU mulls vote of no confidence in Surrey v-c over staff assessments”, News, 29 May.) Lecturers whom students rate below 3.8 out of 5 in questionnaires will in future, it seems, be subject to a “capability meeting”.

Accurate approaches to measuring satisfaction were not available when I was a student there. Some staff, I think, even questioned whether grading teaching would be scientific or valid. There were some pretty quirky views. Lewis Elton, for many years Surrey’s professor of higher education, used to quote Wilhelm von Humboldt: “the teacher is not at the university for the sake of the student; both are there in the service of scholarship”. Thank goodness universities can now rise above this.

Sir Christopher Snowden, Surrey’s vice-chancellor, aims to “secure its position as a top 10 university”. And as Paul Stephenson, the director of human resources, points out, “other leading universities” are doing just the same. So in no time we’ll have dozens of top 10 universities. Everyone will gain!

Apparently Surrey’s University and College Union branch is considering a vote of no confidence in the vice-chancellor. Last year, you reported that the union stopped Surrey from assessing staff on how many of their students received at least a 2:1 grade for their modules (“Surrey considered grade targets for staff appraisals”, 18 July 2013). For some reason, the UCU imagined that this might “distort marking patterns”. How are our leaders to drive up quality if they have to listen to criticism?

A few years ago, Elton suggested that “management and dirigisme” might be “endangering the future of universities”. An unfortunate few, I’m told, still harbour such doubts. The rest of us have learned to love dirigisme. And why not? Our leaders, after all, are always right.

John Holford
Robert Peers chair in adult education
University of Nottingham

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