iPod for their thoughts?

Relentless pressure to give a positive response to the National Student Survey breeds corruption and cynicism, says Frank Furedi

May 29, 2008

It is difficult for academics and university administrators to acknowledge publicly that the National Student Survey is both a time-wasting and a useless exercise. In an era where inane league tables enjoy the status of sacred authority, the imperative of impression management overrides the normal business of academic life. Many colleagues will have received a series of e-mails pleading with them to encourage their students to complete the survey. In some cases the pressure on lecturers is relentless and exhortations are often experienced as threats. They are continually reminded that the position of their department and institution will be undermined unless they get a high response rate and gushing comments from students about their wonderful experience.

Unfortunately, some academics have responded to the demand to increase the response rate to the NSS by adopting the tactics of their managers. In many cases students are told that what is at stake is not only the reputation of their institution but of their degrees. Such warnings transmit a simple message: "Collaborate and ensure that your university does well in the survey because it will help your prospects for employment."

What is interesting about the recent revelation that members of staff at Kingston University have been piling the pressure on final-year students to provide positive answers for this survey is that academic authorities pretend that this is a rare and unusual experience. The warning issued to students by a lecturer - "if Kingston comes down the bottom, the bottom line is that nobody is going to want to employ you" - has been repeated time and again in higher education institutions up and down the country.

Of course, in the fantasy world of higher education-speak the NSS is presented as a wonderful opportunity for students to provide feedback. Typically, Bill Rammell, the Higher Education Minister, has enthused about it and described it as a "powerful tool for student empowerment and institutional improvement".

The fact is that this survey is far more likely to serve as a "powerful tool" for breeding cynicism and an ethos of corruption. Numerous universities have opted to provide material rewards for students who are otherwise reluctant to provide "feedback". Students at University College London were advised that if they completed the survey online before the end of March 2008 they would be entered in a prize draw. First prize was £250. At other institutions students are told that they can win an iPod if they fill in the damn form. Elsewhere, students are offered a £5 Amazon token or a £5 credit towards printing.

There is little point in criticising universities for doing exactly what businesses do to defend their brand and uphold their reputation. In a culture where public relations masquerades as a survey there is considerable incentive to devote significant resources to the task of league-table management. But, contrary to what Rammell argues, instead of improving institutions the NSS distracts them from getting on with their vocation. For a start, a considerable amount of precious time is wasted by administrators and academics who are involved in chivvying students to fill in the forms. Time and resources that should be devoted to teaching and research are diverted to what is, in essence, a pointless exercise.

This exercise is not simply a harmless waste of time, it has a regrettable impact on student and staff alike. Intelligent students are not fooled by the rhetoric of empowerment and feedback. They quickly grasp that this is a cynical project and that what their university wants is not their genuine views but their acquiescence to ticking the right boxes. Experience shows that cynicism can have a corrosive impact on the life of an institution. It certainly sends the wrong message to young people embarking on their careers.

One final point. Are those lecturers who inform students that their degrees will be "worthless" if the university does not perform well in the league table aware of what they are really saying? Telling students that their degrees depend on the outcome of a survey is to devalue their own role and the whole experience of learning and teaching. Academics become alienated from their work if the meaning of what they do becomes mediated through a dubious survey.

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