A true measure of displeasure

November 9, 2006

Politicians' obsession with statistics and tables reveals little and delivers less, argues Susan Bassnett

Not a week goes by without me being sent another set of "meaningful" figures. I am fed up with the way in which the life of students and academics is now dominated by numbers, statistics, graphs and tables that claim to measure our successes or failures.

Like it or not, we in higher education have followed the wretched path well trodden by the National Health Service, which measures patient care in terms of numbers of beds, square metres of floor space, waiting times and survival statistics, while killer bugs, general demoralisation and unemployment are the reality we hear about every day.

Take the student satisfaction industry, for example. The National Student Survey is now used in the league table compilation business (another time-wasting quantifying enterprise). Weasel sentences about "guiding students to online questionnaires" and "urging students to complete the forms as fully as possible" disguise the time such form-filling actually takes. The danger is that this business becomes an end in itself and, by thinking in numbers, people shove the issues that matter to one side.

For if anyone takes the time to talk to students, the causes of their (dis)satisfaction are obvious. Students go to university to acquire knowledge and skills that will help them for the rest of their life. They dislike being patronised and want to be treated as the intelligent young adults they are. They want decent feedback and don't want to have to wait weeks to get it. They also want advice on how to improve if a piece of work merits only a low mark. They want their lecturers to turn up on time. They don't want to be fobbed off with excuses about the importance of the next research assessment exercise that has caused Professor B to again delay her marking.

They also want to be able to find a lecturer when he or she says they are going to be available. I once found a group of students blocking a corridor, who said they were not leaving until Dr Y turned up after three weeks of missed appointments.

Students complain, rightly, about poor library facilities, antiquated laboratories, inadequate IT, crowded lecture and seminar rooms and the lack of office space for postgraduates. All these are issues that most academics can do little or nothing about because they depend on the financial wellbeing and general management of the institution, but what academics can do is what students appear to want more than anything else: spend time with them, offer advice about their work promptly and in clear, understandable terms, direct them to other sources of specialist advice where appropriate and, above all, treat them with dignity.

Quantification methodologies derive from a business-driven approach. Politicians like this way of supposedly assuring quality, because it can be used as part of the rhetoric of con-tinuous improvement - higher numbers of everything. But for those of us working in such institutions all these data serve little purpose unless they are analysed and acted on locally.

I would rather spend more time with my students than ploughing through sheaves of numbers that are often based on low response rates and tell me nothing I couldn't have worked out for myself. Students incurring crippling debts to study deserve more, and so do the academics who keep the university system afloat.

Susan Bassnett is pro vice-chancellor at Warwick University with responsibility for campus life and community affairs.

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