In pursuit of the happy bunnies

January 27, 2006

Massaged, meaningless student satisfaction surveys are the end product of a malign audit culture, says Frank Furedi

Returning from our summer holiday, we were cornered by an angry travel rep. "You haven't filled out your feedback form," she said, before explaining that her job depended on positive comments and a high response rate.

I did not give this incident much thought until I saw just how seriously universities took last autumn's National Student Survey. Colleagues at a new university recall panic-stricken meetings devoted to devising a response to the institution's low marks. The significance attached to student satisfaction can be seen on any university website. "Thumbs up for Brookes" boasts Oxford Brookes University's site; "High student satisfaction in first nationwide survey" proclaims Cardiff University.

In some universities, managers have instituted a programme to prep students about how to fill in the survey. At a leading London-based university, meetings were organised to brief staff on motivating students to respond in the right way. Impression management ensures that this will be yet another useless initiative whose only practical consequence will be to remind academics that they are being monitored - this time by students. And ultimately the initiative will cost a lot of money. In many universities, administrators believe one of the best ways of spending income received through fee increases is on enhancing the "student experience".

Student satisfaction surveys represent the logical outcome of auditing culture. It has never been the objective of academic life to produce satisfied students. That is the mission of finishing schools and health farms. The idea that student satisfaction is even remotely connected to the quality of academic life is based on the model of a business. The contribution of an academic institution is demonstrated through the quality of its graduates, their achievements and contributions to society. A real university is focused on educating, challenging and stimulating - not on satisfying. The prejudice that student satisfaction is an important subject to be surveyed is transmitted by two different interest groups, the widening-access merchants and the promoters of the commercialisation of the academy.

Widening-access merchants celebrate the "student experience" because they believe this is the way to attract reluctant punters. If students are happy bunnies, word will get around that university life is relatively hassle-free and more people will want to have a go. Higher education entrepreneurs take a similar approach. Happy customers are good for business. Customer satisfaction sells the brand and provides a potentially greater share of the market.

The flip side of the student satisfaction survey is that the customer is always right. If students say that their university experience was great, then they must have attended a great institution. In reality, the customer is not always right. Indeed, one of the reasons why students attend a university is to learn to distinguish between right and wrong. The ability to discriminate and assess the quality of an academic experience is the product of years of hard work. The flippant remarks invited by a meaningless marketing exercise such as the National Student Survey flatter the respondent and institutions that have invested in image building. The exercise says nothing of value about the quality of academic education.

Frank Furedi is professor of sociology at Kent University.

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