Rosie Waterhouse: Save us from the tyranny of student surveys

Thursday 18 February 2010 01:00

Over the next three months, final-year undergraduates at British universities will be encouraged to take part in the National Student Survey commissioned by the Higher Education Funding Council. The NSS is just one of an ever-increasing number of surveys and forums by which students are invited to give "feedback" on their university experience.

Since the introduction of top-up fees students have become paying customers. The indications are that fees will rise to at least £5,000 or £7,000 a year in the near future. But, in trying to justify these sums by inviting critical consumer comments, universities are beginning to experience the tyranny of student power. The proliferation of student surveys and feedback forums is creating an unhealthy culture of negative criticism and complaint.

Last term, in the journalism department at City University London, where I teach, all undergraduates and postgraduates were invited to pronounce on individual members of staff, visiting lecturers, their courses, department, school and university on at least five separate occasions. The process will be repeated this term.

Last month Times Higher Education published its student experience survey. City was ranked 98th out of 104 institutions, which makes it look appalling. But, in a survey with 10,465 respondents, City's score was based on the opinions of 44 undergraduates. That's just 0.5 per cent of the total full-time undergraduate population of more than 8,600.

Students were asked to evaluate their experiences of university life based on 21 "attributes" chosen by students. These ranged from high-quality teachers and student support, to sports facilities, campus environment and good social life. City has no playing fields and no live-in campus, and many students live at home and socialise in their own communities. We ranked 11th for industry connections, yet this attribute was given less weight than good community atmosphere, extra-curricular activities and social life. Cathedral cities with a close-knit campus tended to score highly. The bottom eight were all in London.

I asked three senior academic statisticians what they thought and they concluded that the difference between many of the scores was "not statistically significant". One of them, a professor at Cambridge (ranked number two), described the survey as "hopeless".

In such a climate students could be forgiven for thinking that, to be asked for their opinions so often, there must be something seriously wrong for them to criticise. Contrary to natural justice, institutions and individuals are given no formal opportunity to defend themselves, no matter how unfair or malicious the criticisms might be.

The danger is that lecturers will be tempted to give higher marks in the interests of a quiet life.

In classrooms, more and more students are challenging their grades. One of my third-year undergraduate students repeatedly challenged a mark given for an important investigative feature assignment. I marked the student down because of bias and lack of objectivity. The student accused me of discrimination and complained to the course director, who upheld my mark.

Can students be malicious? You bet they can. Last year a group of third years set up a defamatory website and circulated posters around the department accusing me and a colleague of favouring students we sometimes socialised with in the pub after class. More often than not, we were discussing their work. The culprits were subsequently identified and "punished" by having to do work experience in the university press office. They should have been thrown out.

All these surveys and feedback forums are anonymous, self-selecting and unrepresentative – which makes them vulnerable to being dominated by a minority of disaffected, poor-performing students who are given free rein to make malicious criticisms. Other critics claimed the surveys can be manipulated by tutors putting pressure on students to give positive results by threatening that a poor position in the league tables will damage the reputation of their university and therefore down-value their degree.

I believe universities should be more active in evaluating these surveys to ensure they are statistically valid and encourage maximum participation. All staff should be given a formal opportunity to feed back on the feedback. If the surveys must remain anonymous, students should have to include their student identification number so that, if they have made serious criticisms, their complaints can be thoroughly investigated.

The writer is a senior lecturer in the journalism department at City University London.

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