David Butterfield

No satisfaction

Students should find universities challenging, not pleasing

No satisfaction
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Should university students really feel ‘satisfied’? Or would we rather they felt challenged? For the honchos of higher education, the answer is clear — and alarming.

The National Student Survey (NSS), which was introduced in 2005, collects data that allows crude comparisons to be made between universities. The survey asks 300,000 final-year undergraduates to answer 27 questions about their experience of teaching, academic support, assessment and feedback. Some of these are entirely unproblematic: all universities should want students to find that ‘staff are good at explaining things’, or that feedback on work has been ‘timely’. But others are double-edged. Imagine a course where 90 per cent of students agree that ‘staff have made the subject interesting’. Not all undergraduates will find their course to be quite right for them: should a faculty strive to ‘make’ the uninvested interested, even when such efforts often short-change their more engaged peers?

Another question asks whether ‘marking and assessment has been fair’. One should hope so. But what if months of hard toil on a dissertation are not producing first-class results, despite a tutor’s best efforts? Will every disappointed student agree that the outcome was ‘fair’, and that they received ‘helpful comments’ on their work? How many students predicted a 2.2 (let alone that rarissima avis, a third) ‘strongly agree’ that ‘my course has challenged me to achieve my best work’? In reality, 100 per cent satisfaction is improbable and undesirable for any course doing its job properly.

And yet, the NSS is now a formalised feature of university life: it is commissioned and crunched by the sector’s regulator, the Office for Students (OfS). The survey’s questions then in part determine the OfS’s Teaching Excellence Framework (TEF) awards. The OfS claims that the NSS is ‘of the utmost relevance to students’. Perhaps; but that doesn’t mean it is in their best interests. Nevertheless, it was announced in October that future TEF assessments will incorporate more NSS questions, including the degree to which students find it ‘clear’ that ‘feedback on the course has been acted on’. Developing a university course partially in response to student comments is sensible; tailoring it entirely to what students desire is a dereliction of duty. It is an insult to students’ intelligence to suggest that a course with higher ‘student satisfaction’ does its job better than those some percentage points below.

Happily, many undergraduates are wary of the NSS, if for other reasons. Last year, 25 student unions boycotted the survey, hoping that insufficient data would render their universities ineligible for TEF awards, and therefore less likely to increase their tuition fees. The House of Lords then rejected the proposal of tying fees to TEF performance, aware that the system was ripe for gaming.

For universities, meanwhile, the NSS provides irresistible marketing material. The advertisements write themselves: ‘top three for student satisfaction in Scotland’; ‘most intellectually stimulating course within the M25’; ‘best timetabling in Tyneside’. University administrators dread the disenchanted — and anonymous — undergraduate survey responses that could ruin future sales pitches. They do all they can to secure positive answers, rewarding students with vouchers and prizes for completing the survey. While it’s unlawful to influence NSS outcomes, these efforts doubtless brighten the mood.

The NSS is creating a ‘customer is always right’ culture within academia. I hear alarming strategies from colleagues who need to keep feedback upbeat. Reading lists are cut down to essential excerpts, provided via one-click online links or ready-to-use photo-copies; long-form essays are replaced with question sheets or poster projects; exams are reduced in scale and scope, often without commensurate increases in coursework. Grade inflation is a shared reality. Worse still, departments are told that if they do not improve satisfaction ratings, their resources will be diminished, their promotions stymied.

A culture committed to securing real-time student satisfaction naturally encourages spoon-fed, step-by-step learning. Academic innovation and intellectual rigour are hampered by fears that individuals’ poor attainment will condemn a course’s collective success. But students must not be deceived: hard work is hard work, and degrees must deal in degrees. Being pushed as far as one’s abilities allow may feel uncomfortable rather than satisfying. But that is the particular privilege of a university education.

Written byDavid Butterfield

David Butterfield is a Senior Lecturer in Classics at the University of Cambridge

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