Universities ‘could face prosecution’ over student evaluations

‘Psychosocial harm’ clauses in workplace safety laws elevate administrators’ mental health obligations, expert warns

July 6, 2023
Man surrounding by pointing fingers to illustrate how student evaluations can be detrimental to staff, which could lead to universities facing prosecution.
Source: Getty Images

Universities’ use of student evaluations leaves them vulnerable to legal action from distressed staff, with executives and governing council members potentially also exposed.

Australian researchers say universities render themselves “liable to legal ramifications” by using information from student evaluations of teaching (SET) – “a data source known to be prejudiced and biased” – to inform hiring, firing, promoting and grant-funding decisions.

Universities could fall foul of anti-discrimination or workplace health and safety legislation, the scholars argue in the journal Assessment & Evaluation in Higher Education. Although aggrieved academics could not sue students over discriminatory comments, they could take action against their employers for allowing the comments to affect their careers, they say.

And universities face arguably more risk from workplace laws that, unlike anti-discrimination legislation, are “enforced by the state”.

Co-author Paul Harpur said anti-discrimination litigation could force academics to endure long legal processes for payouts of just a few thousand dollars. But serious breaches of workplace legislation could see senior university executives and possibly governing council members individually penalised.

That could happen if courts decided that university leaders had not personally taken action to avert harm to staff. “There is a risk – a pretty low risk, but it will be on the risk register of those people,” said Dr Harpur, a disability rights expert at the University of Queensland Law School. “Everyone I’ve spoken to is paying attention to it.”

He said the risk had increased since he and co-author Troy Heffernan wrote the paper, because of new “psychosocial” clauses in workplace safety legislation. The provisions oblige employers to manage the risks posed by “psychosocial hazards” – including workplace management, environment and interactions – to the mental health of workers.

The provisions were added to Australia’s model workplace health and safety laws in April and are being adopted by the states and territories. Every jurisdiction except Victoria has signed up to the model laws. The paper says overseas universities have similar obligations because other countries’ legislation is often similar or stronger.

“There is a much greater obligation now than there has been previously to protect the mental health of staff,” Dr Harpur said.

The paper cites evidence that mounting prejudice and abuse in student evaluations is disproportionately affecting some university workers’ mental health. It says: “For at least 25 years research has shown that academics from groups marginalised by gender, sexual identity, race, language background or…disability are likely to be severely disadvantaged in SET data. Harm does occur and…is impacting significant numbers of academics.”

Dr Harpur said that, at a minimum, universities needed systems capable of assessing and – where appropriate – expunging negative commentary. Institutions should also have support mechanisms ready for the academics most likely to be upset by critical commentary, such as first-time teachers.

“It is complex, but our workforces are complex,” Dr Harpur said.



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Reader's comments (7)

It is refreshing to see discussions around the risk of legal action against universities for using student evaluation in decision making about staff. The psychological and emotional trauma caused to staff by student evaluations goes largely unreported with sometimes dire consequences. Health and Safety is an area not discussed in many universities, yet it is a standard yardstick by which employers are assessed in other lines of work.
What legal action? It's a job and students are customers. They are unhappy, they are entitled to express dissatisfaction because they are paying for the education that they are displeased with. How else can any organization improve its performance if it is not measuring its workforce? Basic market principles apply here; students will leave drop the courses, or demand refunds for their tuition. This is about money being paid to an organization for service it must render, if it does not; it goes out of business. Either way, the students will take the university to court, or it's workforce. Means that traditional modes of education delivery are no longer feasible, and more organizations need to use automation and artificial intelligence to deliver education to the students because it is becoming unsustainable to keep everyone happy.
There is no evidence that student evaluations cause any social harm or have any impact on the workforce. Most all professors are pleased with the feedback and use it to develop their courses to tailor to the students. The adult professors who interact with < 21-year-olds, and the universities and the professors have pastoral obligations to make sure that young people are able to communicate and express their feelings with the university. There is no evidence of any issues that come from student evaluations. There is evidence of a handful of academics using coercive tactics to suppress dissent, which itself creates an unfriendly work environment. I am not sure why there would be an issue when 99% of the professors benefit from their student feedback and interactions.
The problem is that universities are unionized and lack accountability in dismissing subpar and underperforming professors. Good professors get good marks from the students, and poor professors get bad marks. The students pay tuition; they are entitled to express their free speech and academic expression - otherwise they will drop the course and move to another university or class. Who is paying who? I think most of the problems will be solved once the universities are privatized and free market principles are applied to higher education.
You are seeing now that American professors espouse antisemitic views publicly. The students are uncomfortable with that sentiment. These professors will receive poor ratings by one faction of the student community, and the other faction may find them more favorable. It is unknown of how much of professors' own public persona influences them, but the evidence suggests that students select courses of the professors who they find more aligned with their views.
Removing evaluations will help the bad professors and hurt the good professors who receive good ratings.
I know plenty of people who receive great ratings and feedback and are proud of them. Student feedback is your scorecard. The comments are about how they feel about you. A bit of a double standard to say it is acceptable to criticize the students and not have the students criticize the professors. Universities are public domains, paid, and funded by the students and taxpayers, and no one is entitled to impose censorship.