May 13, 2008

NSS fakery

Writing about web page

According to this BBC news report, a member of staff at Kingston University has been caught on tape encouraging students to rank Kingston highly when they complete their National Student Survey forms. It’s pretty sad really, but the lecturer’s comments about the consequences of a poor ranking:-

If Kingston comes down the bottom, the bottom line is that nobody is going to want to employ you…

... and on what constitutes feedback at a university:-

Feedback, in terms of this questionnaire, means what happens in seminars. Every seminar you have you get some interactive feedback from the person giving it. So if I ask a question and no one answers, and I start banging my head on the table, that is feedback. If I’m smiling and going ‘yeah great’, you’re getting feedback. If you get a mark for a piece of work, that’s what we mean by feedback.

made me at least half smile. But the most telling part of the article is the comments left by other readers, who point out that Kingston is by no means the only institution which encourages its students to respond positively to the NSS, that this is exactly what you’d expect to happen in a league table, targets-driven culture, and that people often choose to do a survey precisely because they have some kind of axe to grind, skewing the results. So we’re caught in a weird kind of Catch-22 trap where everybody wants to come high up in whatever survey or league table is currently in the news, but nobody really believes that the surveys represent any kind of objective truth. Strange.

Edit, Wed 14th May: In a follow-up story the BBC states that hundreds of students emailed them after the first story was published, stating that similar pressure was applied at their institution. Interestingly, in the comments on this follow-up, the only two comments from students asserting that this practice does not happen at their institution were from Oxford (attention drawn to the survey but nothing more), and Cambridge (Students’ Union boycotts the survey because it doesn’t reflect life and work at Cambridge accurately).

- One comment Not publicly viewable

  1. Rob

    It might be that we are in a catch 22 situation with education, but what this demonstrates is the difficulty in all walks of life of harvesting data.

    If you think about even the august and mighty Coca cola, who in about 1985 launched New coke after much investment in market research etc, only to find that it flopped. They believed what they were told from the data that was gathered, only to find that the data was wrong.

    So coming back to education, it seems to me that there should be some measure of achievement that shows how well an establishment is doing. I worked for a French organisation for a while, and they found it extremely difficult to grasp that there were no obvious centres of educational excellence in the UK. In the US (where I suppose the current ideas came from) Universities who excel attract funding from Industry.

    So what’s the answer for the UK? We certainly have to come up with a solution that fits the UK culture and expectations, and perhaps some discussion here will help us to unravel it.

    n.b. I would concede that the US idea is unlikely to take off here, because it relies on Alumni being attached by an umbilical to its originating University.

    14 May 2008, 10:51

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