pursuit of the happy bunnies
Massaged, meaningless student satisfaction surveys are the
end product of a malign audit culture.
Returning from our summer holiday, we were cornered by an angry
travel rep. "You haven't filled out your feedback form,"
she said, before explaining that her job depended on positive comments
and a high response rate.
I did not give this incident much thought until I saw just how
seriously universities took last autumn's National Student Survey.
Colleagues at a new university recall panic-stricken meetings devoted
to devising a response to the institution's low marks. The significance
attached to student satisfaction can be seen on any university website.
"Thumbs up for Brookes" boasts Oxford Brookes University's
site; "High student satisfaction in first nationwide survey"
proclaims Cardiff University.
In some universities, managers have instituted a programme to prep
students about how to fill in the survey. At a leading London-based
university, meetings were organised to brief staff on motivating
students to respond in the right way. Impression management ensures
that this will be yet another useless initiative whose only practical
consequence will be to remind academics that they are being monitored
- this time by students. And ultimately the initiative will cost
a lot of money. In many universities, administrators believe one
of the best ways of spending income received through fee increases
is on enhancing the "student experience".
Student satisfaction surveys represent the logical outcome of auditing
culture. It has never been the objective of academic life to produce
satisfied students. That is the mission of finishing schools and
health farms. The idea that student satisfaction is even remotely
connected to the quality of academic life is based on the model
of a business. The contribution of an academic institution is demonstrated
through the quality of its graduates, their achievements and contributions
to society. A real university is focused on educating, challenging
and stimulating - not on satisfying. The prejudice that student
satisfaction is an important subject to be surveyed is transmitted
by two different interest groups, the widening-access merchants
and the promoters of the commercialisation of the academy.
Widening-access merchants celebrate the "student experience"
because they believe this is the way to attract reluctant punters.
If students are happy bunnies, word will get around that university
life is relatively hassle-free and more people will want to have
a go. Higher education entrepreneurs take a similar approach. Happy
customers are good for business. Customer satisfaction sells the
brand and provides a potentially greater share of the market.
The flip side of the student satisfaction survey is that the customer
is always right. If students say that their university experience
was great, then they must have attended a great institution. In
reality, the customer is not always right. Indeed, one of the reasons
why students attend a university is to learn to distinguish between
right and wrong. The ability to discriminate and assess the quality
of an academic experience is the product of years of hard work.
The flippant remarks invited by a meaningless marketing exercise
such as the National Student Survey flatter the respondent and institutions
that have invested in image building. The exercise says nothing
of value about the quality of academic education.
published in the Times Higher Education Supplement, 27