Variable conclusions

January 28, 2016

Your article “‘Biased’ students give BME academics lower NSS scores, says study” (News, 21 January) cited a University of Reading analysis of National Student Survey data that purported to show that “students are happiest when taught by staff with the following characteristics: white, full professors, holding doctorates, and on fixed-term contracts”.

The original article links to a preprint manuscript, which is an analysis of the 2014 NSS data in relation to a wide range of variables on the characteristics of universities and their staff. The authors have trawled the data for relationships with as many variables as were available. These sorts of fishing expeditions in large datasets are notoriously unreliable at identifying genuine trends in the data: if you try to match enough things to enough data, by chance some will fit. The manuscript deals with multiple variables, many of which are probably closely correlated and potentially confounding, which is a good recipe for selective storytelling.

The effects appear to be small (although the manuscript is unclear on methods): 0.0015 NSS “teaching satisfaction” points and 0.06 overall satisfaction points drop for every percentage decrease in white staff. So, simplistically, the difference in teaching satisfaction between a totally white and totally non-white staff base would be less than 1 per cent; and a 10 per cent difference in non-white make up results in a 0.6 per cent change in NSS score. Although this may have influence on an institution’s placing in the overall ranking, this can hardly be seen as a major factor in determining the NSS score. It is equivalent to arguing that the thickness of my socks (because it is consistent and measurable) is an important determinant of my height.

Philip Wheeler
Senior lecturer in ecology
The Open University

Send to

Letters should be sent to:

Letters for publication in Times Higher Education should arrive by 9am Monday. View terms and conditions.

You've reached your article limit

Register to continue

Registration is free and only takes a moment. Once registered you can read a total of 6 articles each month, plus:

  • Sign up for the editor's highlights
  • Receive World University Rankings news first
  • Get job alerts, shortlist jobs and save job searches
  • Participate in reader discussions and post comments

Have your say

Log in or register to post comments

Featured Jobs

Professor of Military Technology THE SWEDISH DEFENCE UNIVERSITY
Director of Digital Services STAFFORDSHIRE UNIVERSITY
Technician for Psychology Programmes ST MARYS UNIVERSITY, TWICKENHAM

Most Commented

Home secretary says government will support 'best' universities

Man handing microphone to audience member

Academic attainment of disadvantaged students can be improved if they can decide how they are assessed, study claims

Woman drinking tea from saucer

Plugging a multibillion-pound deficit exacerbated by June’s poll result may require ‘drastic measures’, analysts have warned

PhD lettered on book spine

Billy Bryan and Furaha Asani look at how to get the most out of your doctoral studies

Italy's gold medallist

New measures to ensure universities are ‘not penalised’ for taking poorer students also outlined for next stage of TEF