The Easter holidays mean only one thing for third years: dissertations. Practically every subject expects its students to churn out around 10,000 words on a chosen topic. Dissertations are meant to stop chancers cramming the night before and snatching an undeserved First. If any layabouts want a good degree, they have to suffer in the library like the rest of us – for a few weeks at least.
Every dissertation starts with good intentions. Technically, I started mine last summer, when I popped into the library to do some introductory reading. I bumped into a friend doing the same. "How wise we are," we chuckled to ourselves. "No last-minute stress for us." I met him again last week. We both had three weeks left and 7,000 words to go.
My dire situation is a common one, unfortunately. The library is full of over-caffeinated third years, despite it being the holidays. Most hide themselves away in the basement floors, away from distractions like natural sunlight. But some distractions are hard to ignore.
Like every other university in the country, Sheffield is bombarding its final-year students with reminders to fill in the National Student Survey. Emails have been sent out. There's a reminder on the university's homepage. There are even adverts on Facebook.
The reason the university is so desperate for me to fill in the survey is simple. The NSS is a significant criterion in university league tables: the happier its students, the higher up the table a university goes. Universities thus have a huge incentive in encouraging student responses.
Some universities offer small bribes to their students to increase the response rate. Liverpool John Moores offers its students £3 printer credit for a completed survey. Northumbria has a weekly £200 prize draw for respondents, while the college with the most responses gets a free ball. You even get a free Cadbury Creme Egg if you fill it in at the undergrad office.
Not only do such policies encourage responses, they also encourage favourable ones. Why would you criticise someone who has just given you a Creme Egg? To do so would be downright rude. Respondents at universities that don't offer such incentives, like mine, have little cause to lie – unless they want to engage in a shameless attempt to inflate their university's reputation. Students are thus put in a moral quandary. They can improve the value of their degree in two ways. One involves slogging away and trying to get a First. The other involves lying on a survey to boost the reputation of their university and subsequently their degree. This way you also have the possibility of a Creme Egg. The really clever will simply do both.
Professors might think that reliance on the NSS for ranking is a step towards student tyranny. But the NSS isn't a tyranny, it's a farce. It's a cycle of self-interest. Students want their university to look good so that they look good. Buffing up survey results makes everyone a winner.