04 September 2013

On missing the point...

The National Student Survey results came out a few weeks ago. This is how one vice-chancellor commented on the results in a general staff message (lightly edited/redacted):
I am grateful for the efforts and contribution colleagues have made towards achieving this improvement in performance. It is clear though that there is much work to do if we are to [...] reach [...] our strategic plan targets. [...]

In September, we will be circulating a course by course analysis of performance (compared to the university sector) to each Head of Department (HoD) and relevant Associate Dean (Student Experience). Each HoD will then be expected to engage with Course Co-ordinators [...] to determine priority areas for each course.

Following this, NSS Course Level Action Plans [...] will require completion by HoDs / Course Coordinators and submitted to each Associate Dean (Student Experience) who will advise and recommend enhancements (where appropriate). Course Level Action Plans must be submitted to the appropriate Associate Dean (Student Experience) by no later than [...]

Faculty Level Action Plans will then require completion in mid-November.
There will be regular reviews of progress with NSS Course Level and Faculty Level Action Plans at Faculty Executive meetings and at the Vice Chancellor's Student Experience Group. Course Coordinators are expected to discuss performance and progress against NSS Action Plans with colleagues and, crucially, students at the start of the academic year and routinely thereafter on a fortnightly basis.[...]
In terms of conventional Quality Enhancement and management terms, I'm sure that this is regarded as really good practice. After all, the results for this institution were higher than ever before, but he is not content with that. He's got a clear plan of action, which identifies responsible roles and a reporting system and target dates. The plan includes consultation (although the term itself is not used) with "colleagues and, crucially, students".

But it does rest on a "customer service" model--and that must be contestable within academe. It's the rhetoric of the customer being always right, and as I have banged on about many times, its seemingly benign effects can seriously undermine good teaching (not to mention failing to trust academics to act on their professional values, even if they occasionally upset students). See here and here.

Moreover, it assumes that NSS results are valid, and a good proxy for a good educational experience (hard to define--see this post on branding). They are effectively only at the first level of the Kirkpatrick model, that of "Reaction". It would be really interesting to poll these graduating students in five years' time, to evaluate the impact of these details on their subsequent life and work experiences--Kirkpratrick's fourth level.

But principally, my concern is with the assumption that overall quality can best be improved by a head-on assault on the "problems". It assumes that final-year undergraduate student are reliable judges and that their views can be taken at face value. To take a common concern among academic staff, surface learning students often want to be spoon-fed, and administrators may be so in thrall to the voice of the customer as to demand compliance, to the ultimate detriment of the learning experience and the value of the qualification.

On my weekly listing of items to share, I recommend this post from "patter", on obliqueness, or "obliquity" which is the version I prefer. It would be refreshing to find some of the corporately-minded managers of institutions considering whether that might not be ultimately a more productive approach.

After all, as Graham Gibbs pointed out, following McNay (1995), of four kinds of university culture; collegial, corporate, bureaucratic and entrepreneurial, the corporate and the bureaucratic are the least effective--so why are they so keen on embracing them?

Universities are behaving like addicts; they daren't go back on their dependence on a dangerous and destructive culture and organisational model, because things would have to get worse before they got better, and since they now have directly-paying "customers" and public "consumer satisfaction surveys", they would collapse before they could return to collegiality, and entrepreneurship seems pretty risky.

But they could perhaps back off a little from trying ever harder to impose spurious second-rate uniformity on some of those genuinely original and creative offerings which could be the grit in the oyster.

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