Making the grade in these Gradgrind times

January 23, 2004

Treat students as students, be open with them and they may see through the free-market freaks, says Bob Brecher.

One of the most important tasks facing today's academics is to learn how to get good marks from our students in their course evaluations.

Of course everyone knows that student evaluations are an elaborate charade.

Even those responsible for the first national student satisfaction survey seem "concerned" that "the findings may not be reliable" ("Worries over reliability delay results of satisfaction survey", THES , November 21). And the very idea of student satisfaction has been lifted from the customer-speak of the hospitality industry as part of the effort to commodify education and turn it into another consumer product. Student satisfaction? Wasn't the idea of higher education once championed by subversive revolutionaries such as John Stuart Mill and Cardinal Newman to encourage student dissatisfaction?

But the trouble is that, insidiously subversive of education as student evaluations are, they do matter. Get too low a score - too many of your students didn't "learn enough", or perhaps too many "felt" they'd been asked to "learn too much", it is hard to know which is the more heinous offence - and your "appraisal" might not go too well. Your facilitative capacities might be deemed not to merit a performance-based pay rise. And, if you're unlucky enough to be working in one of those institutions that uses this gibberish as a weapon against what were once its members, your job could be at stake if you get bad marks from your students more than once. The Gradgrind-inspired fetish of measurement rules, whether used disingenuously or not, in all too many of our universities, just as it does in schools, social services and the National Health Service.

So how can you persist in that curiously old-fashioned academic activity called teaching and still get good marks from your students for how you "perform"? Well, here's one suggestion. Treat your students as students.

Take them into your confidence. Be explicit about how in the end everyone, and not least new generations of students, will be losers if the free-market freaks have their way and competition replaces collegiality.

Explain how "customer satisfaction" is serving to substitute commodified pap for a decent education, and what the role of the evaluation game is in that. Remind them how this fits in with the introduction of differential tuition fees. And remember that most of them have already been on the receiving end of all this, given they're likely to be working in all sorts of menial jobs. So get them on your side, and even those who want only an easy ride might sit up and take some notice of the world they're in.

And then it's the official set of forms for the performance, and something quite different for the reality. The forms will need to show how pedagogically brilliant you are; how outstandingly well the course achieves its outcomes; what a truly facilitative person you really are; and how, under your magical touch, all difficulties dissolve. Remember to be careful to explain which way round those 1s and 5s go, though: you can't afford to get that wrong. Then, with the forms safely on their way to the facilitation police, you can all settle down to a proper candid discussion about the course. For it's worth remembering that, as with so many other tools of oppression in today's universities, the original idea behind student evaluations was in itself entirely laudable. But like so much else in Blair's Britain, first the language and then the reality were appropriated by the cadres of new Labour and their managerialist minions for their own ends.

Still, you might even want to take seriously what your students say. Who knows, your students might be so inspired by this facilitation of their critical capacities that one day they'll refuse to have anything to do with this rubbish. Nor could anyone gainsay them. After all, they are the customers; and the customer is always right. They don't always have to do as they're told. Nor, of course, do we.

Bob Brecher is reader in moral philosophy, University of Brighton.

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