Fine arts suffer class bias in National Student Survey, study says

Researchers argue that nature of teaching in subjects means that they cannot score highly in survey

January 15, 2015

Source: Alamy

Any thoughts? The nature of arts teaching means feedback is ad hoc

New research shows that the National Student Survey is “unconsciously biased” against universities specialising in art and design, a vice-chancellor has said.

Although overall satisfaction rates have risen in the 10 years the survey has been in existence, scores for art and design subjects have remained stubbornly low.

Researchers Mantz Yorke (of Lancaster University), Susan Orr (University of the Arts London) and Bernadette Blair (Kingston University) suggest in an article published last month in the journal Studies in Higher Education that “a perfect storm” of factors combine to compromise the performance of the subjects.

On the NSS, a range of subjects often receive poor marks from students on the quality of feedback from tutors, the researchers suggest. This is especially true for fine art and design, they say, where feedback is given ad hoc and informally, such as a passing comment on a student’s work, or over time, as work is developed in a studio.

The researchers note that this may explain why feedback scores are low for these subjects compared with more practical and formal subjects such as nursing.

Art and design subjects also score consistently low when it comes to staff contact hours. This may be because these courses are not as “explicitly structured” as those that score consistently highly in the survey, the researchers suggest.

Overall, they conclude, the “study raises a question about the utility of a generic survey instrument”.

Nigel Carrington, vice-chancellor of UAL, which received a score of 70 per cent for student satisfaction in the most recent survey, said that his institution took the NSS “seriously as a way to listen to our students and improve their experience”.

“But as this research sets out, the NSS is unconsciously biased against arts and design institutions. Its questions assume that students are being taught in lecture theatres and classrooms. That simply doesn’t reflect the way students learn practice-based subjects, from arts and design to some science and medical courses,” he said.

Mr Carrington added that the NSS should be tailored to better reflect the experiences of such students.

“The NSS already asks students on NHS-funded courses a different set of questions because it recognises that they are taught in a different way from the classroom norm. The upcoming review of the NSS should extend this principle to all practice-based subjects. This would be a fairer reflection of satisfaction,” he said.

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