Monday, February 13, 2006

The Value of Fear in Student Surveys

A friend of mine, David Wall, was gently chided by his university. His error? To tell students to think carefully when they completed the national student survey. This is how the Times Higher Education Supplement put it:

"It is a delicate balance universities must strike: how to encourage students to complete student satisfaction surveys while at the same time not prejudicing the outcome.
It is a predicament that David Wall, head of the School of Law at Leeds University, appeared oblivious to: "Before you tick the neutral, disagree or strongly disagree boxes, just think about the message that it will send to the world outside about the quality of your education at Leeds," he warned students in the school's most recent newsletter.
To ensure that students grasped the point, he went on: "We want to be able to say that we are one of the top ten law schools in the country... it is in your power to make that happen in the survey."

Of course David was right to caution students. His words don't mean that students will slavishly follow what he says, but they may give them pause to think before they cross the line. Students should consider the consequences of their actions.

But surveys are frightening instruments. They are not scary in what they do, rather it's the effect they have on senior administrators/managers in universities. These are the ones enslaved by student satisfaction surveys and league tables. If they don't score highly, it's like a personal insult. Perhaps if they flagellated themselves in public before the student body and faculty on receiving a bad ranking, we could be a little more credulous. Usually, however, they like to cast around to place the blame on others. It's part of the overly reactive nature of university administrations. Because their role is artificial, they are unable to come up with any real ideas.

If this occurred in the US, I might understand more. If the football or basketball team loses, the president of the university better have a good story to tell the state legislature next time he goes before them with his budget. You can bet they will be sore! And those alumni cheques will begin to dry up too.

When I was on the faculty at Indiana University, Bobby Knight was the best known basketball coach in the country--Olympics and NCAA. He was the second most important citizen of the state of Indiana after the governor. Bobby was fractious and bad-tempered but his boys won the games and the Hoosiers loved him. He took part in a documentary about stress. The interviewer asked him how he coped. According to Bobby handling stress was no different to handling rape: just lie back and get it over with. There was a huge furore with calls for Bobby's head. The president was considering asking for Bobby's resignation, New Mexico was offering a half-million dollar salary, then the governor called the president. The message was clear: if Bobby goes, you go. Bobby stayed.

Some of the elite universities have found a solution to the dilemma of surveys--they ignore them. They get on with the task of educating students and doing first class research. They don't let themselves get distracted with ephemera. They have confidence.

Why then don't universities in general have confidence in what they do? A big part of it is that universities have split into two organisations. One is the normal part of teaching and research; the other is the parasitical administration which is trying to justify itself largely through Fordist techniques of command and control. (So 2oth century, darling!) This part of the university institution has no real way of calibrating its success or failure. Academics publish, get grants and so on. Administrators hold meetings.

Perhaps some of the effects of globalisation need to permeate British universities. One of the given goals of an American university president is to raise funds for the university. Indeed, he or she must account each year for how many millions of dollars they've raised. Apart from a few Oxbridge college heads and a couple of London institution heads, I know of no university vice-chancellor who goes out and returns with money for the university. And I don't mean the kind of money that government hands out. In this respect, British university vice-chancellors have an easy ride. True they are good bookkeepers, but as ambassadors for their institutions, they are an embarrassment when it comes to fundraising. They should be getting funds for endowed chairs, research institutes, and student programmes.

It's time for a culture change. It's time for British university administrators to adopt a "can do" mentality, to have a vision, to interact with academics and find out what they need. The grey bureaucrats--in appearance and approach--like the dinosaurs have had their day.

Bye, bye...
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