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: THE.Letters@tesglobal.com

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 3 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
Register

Have your say

Log in or register to post comments

Featured Jobs

Most Commented

Daniel Mitchell illustration (29 June 2017)

Academics who think they can do the work of professional staff better than professional staff themselves are not showing the kind of respect they expect from others

As the pay of BBC on-air talent is revealed, one academic comes clean about his salary

A podium constructed out of wood

There are good reasons why some big names are missing from our roster

Senior academics at Teesside University put at risk of redundancy as summer break gets under way

Thorns and butterflies

Conditions that undermine the notion of scholarly vocation – relentless work, ubiquitous bureaucracy – can cause academics acute distress and spur them to quit, says Ruth Barcan