Undergraduate survey riles unions

March 25, 2005

The country's first national survey of students' views on the quality of their courses is in danger of flopping as several student unions urge members to boycott it.

Prompted by the Government's drive to provide more information for prospective degree students, the survey is intended to assess the student experience in terms of teaching, support, facilities and students' personal development.

But student unions at universities such as Oxford, Cambridge and Warwick have come out against the survey, arguing that it burdens final-year students at a time when they are under intense pressure. They also believe that the survey will be of limited use.

"We believe the data collection methods are unfairly intrusive at an important time of a finalist's year, that the Higher Education Funding Council for England's response target is overly ambitious, and that questions are over-generalised and cannot adequately reflect the Cambridge experience," said Drew Livingston, Cambridge University student union's academic affairs officer.

The survey has been sent to 284,000 final-year undergraduates in England, Wales and Northern Ireland, with results due to be published on the new Teaching Quality Information website this summer.

It poses 20 simple questions for students to answer on a scale from "definitely agree" to "definitely disagree". Questions include: "Staff are good at explaining things", "Assessment arrangements and marking have been fair" and "As a result of the course, I feel confident in tackling unfamiliar problems". Students may opt out of the questionnaire, but those who have not replied say they have received emails, postal questionnaires, postal reminders and phone calls seeking their views.

Jo Knight, 21, a student at Queen Mary, University of London, claimed she had been harassed by calls from Ipsos UK, an independent research company carrying out the survey.

"They've called me at home five or six times in three days and I'm sick of it," she said. "I'm avoiding the house phone because I don't want to talk to them."

Some student unions, however, have embraced the survey to safeguard the reputations of their institutions, as incomplete surveys are registered as negative comments against the university.

Matt Marshall, the vice-president of education at Birmingham University's student union, issued a plea via the university's online message board urging students to complete the survey, saying: "We don't want the university looking bad when it's not their fault, do we?"

Hannah Essex, vice-president of education for the National Union ofStudents, which supports the survey, said: "The National Student Survey gives final-year students a unique opportunity to inform future students about the quality of their student experience."

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