Shout out and hope for change

March 23, 2007

The National Student Survey might seem a flawed exercise, but Susan Bassnett believes it could be a chance to make some noise about issues of concern.

The annual student survey is coming round again. Since its introduction, it has been growing in significance in the minds of university managers despite the fact that it has about as much ability to change anything as those forms you are always being asked to fill in at airports or in hotels rating "quality" of something or other. I've filled them in dutifully for years and never noticed any improvements, and my student offspring report the same.

Keep filling in the forms, I tell them, and if you feel something isn't working properly, say so. Fine, comes back the answer, but Dr X has apparently been giving the same boring lectures for the past 30 years and the department of Y is renowned for hanging on to students' essays for weeks without any decent feedback, so what is a form going to change?

This is the problem with surveys and questionnaires and all the other bits of paper that are supposedly giving you more power to affect how a system works: change can be brought about only if someone acts on the information received, and if the famous Professor A is a lousy teacher but a star for the research assessment exercise, student disgruntlement isn't going to make any difference to his salary or his prospects.

I was asked the other day to fill in a long form rating one of my colleagues in something called a 360-degree feedback exercise. The form was idiotic. I ticked all the boxes, but the exercise was meaningless. I knew it would be a waste of time when I saw the cover sheet asking me whether I was my colleague's line manager or peer. I pointed out that management structures in academia are not organised with that kind of terminology, but I have had no response.

Models derived from business or based on quantification methods don't help people to learn or to teach. And the glee with which some universities seized on the National Student Survey results last year to claim that they were the best of the best was depressing, particularly when you unpicked the facts and discovered the small percentage of students who responded.

The survey is a way of constructing yet another league table and, even though I support the principle of canvassing students for their views on all aspects of the university they have chosen, the UK obsession with league tables is deeply depressing.

British children were recently found to be among the most unhappy in Europe. As they are shunted into schools at the age of 4, tested continuously throughout their school years and made to feel responsible if they do badly for the placing of their institution in some league table, this is unsurprising. Such unhappiness leaks out when they get to university, too, as indicated by the rising stress levels documented by the National Union of Students and the number of students who drop out altogether. So can filling in forms make any difference, and should we encourage students to take part in what is at heart a flawed exercise?

The answer is yes, if only for the same reason that I go determinedly, though unenthusiastically, to vote despite having no faith in this Government or the Opposition: because people fought and died for the right to vote, and in many parts of the world students have no voice at all and are treated like dirt. Fill in the forms, I advise my students, and shout if necessary. For there is a chance that someone somewhere might start to listen if you make enough noise.

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

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