I am not here to satisfy you: the NSS and our institutional knickers

The neoliberal endeavour to convert university students into consumers is underpinned by a survey culture that is constantly attempting to measure a thing called ‘student satisfaction’. It’s part of the way universities compete with one another and manufacture what is termed the ‘student experience’. In the neoliberal academy, students, faculty and staff are constantly surveyed, a phenomenon that a New Zealand academic has recently described as a tyranny that may “degrade student achievement” and “harm staff” (Heinemann 2015). If you borrow an interloan, ask IT to fix a software issue on your computer, or order sandwiches for a meeting from the preferred corporate supplier, you’re then likely to be sent a survey to assess the level of customer satisfaction with the service. It’s tedious but fortunately most of them can be quickly ignored and deleted. But the survey that seems to produce a bizarre level of managerial emphasis and concern that is quite hard to ignore is the National Student Survey (NSS). In my view, NSS obsession is producing quite pernicious and pedogogically impoverishing outcomes. For those outside the UK, the NSS began in 2005. It is commissioned by HEFCE and carried out by Ipsos Mori. Students are asked 23 questions which relate to student satisfaction and the learning experience (see thestudentsurvey.com for more detail). It then produces scores and rankings to add to the dozens of other league tables in which contemporary universities jostle for position and which get deployed in a highly selective manner in university spin.

The biggest problem with the idea of student satisfaction is that our principal aim as educators should not be to satisfy students. My teaching philosophy is composed in part of the following ideas:

I am not here to satisfy you. I am here to encourage you to interrogate your existing knowledges and possibly your own privilege. This is likely to be a deeply unsettling and uncomfortable process, especially if your class, race or gender location has never required you to interrogate your worldview and how it harms and excludes. I will however do my best to inspire you and encourage you to think.

In fact, our aim should be to unsettle our students, especially the most privileged ones, not to satisfy them. It can often be satisfying to have your pre-existing values and worldviews endorsed (which is why people with right-wing views tend to watch Fox News for example rather than MSNBC or Democracy Now). While it might be energizing to have them challenged, and sometimes clearly is, for some students it can be deeply and profoundly dissatisfying. Some students react negatively when they are exposed to explicitly feminist perspectives or are forced to confront how they continue to benefit from the legacies of colonialism or white privilege. Engagement with these issues starts at university but is probably not resolved if ever until much later in a student’s life. By the time I graduated after four years of study, I had begun to rethink my worldviews. It wasn’t until much later than I gained a much deeper insight into my own politics and cultural assumptions and began to reformulate them. So if students are dissatisfied, it could be because we are doing our jobs properly, not because we are failing.

My view is that we can’t decolonize or democratize the university, while we are so excessively focused on measuring student satisfaction through governmentalizing bureaucratic mechanisms such as the NSS. I make this point because I have become aware of how the institutional NSS obsession distorts what we do, including our relationships with our students and our course content. For students, it intensifies the idea that getting timely feedback is more important than getting your head around a set of complex ideas. It tends to produce a grievance culture, at times even a misplaced sense of entitlement. It encourages some students to complain about things they might never have complained about without it. It might even undermine learning if students feel justified in complaining about feedback rather than in working a little harder. It often means academics have to work excessively long hours to get grades in quickly based solely on the idea that if we don’t our scores in the NSS might fall.

The NSS doesn’t encourage students to complain about the things they really should be complaining about – racism and rape culture on campus, the failure to include black and indigenous intellectuals on reading lists, the extreme levels of indebtedness that the coalition government has forced them to endure, the exorbitant profits that private landlords are making from renting properties to students or that they are being taught sometimes by staff on zero hours contracts.

I don’t want to come across as all nostalgic about the days before the neoliberalization of higher education. Universities were by and large sexist, elitist and colonial institutions and a lot had to change. They are probably a little less sexist, elitist and colonial now than they were when I was an undergraduate in the 1980s. But when I was an undergraduate, when I had no idea what my fees cost because my education was publicly funded, I was never asked to fill out a survey, not one. There were no end of semester surveys or course surveys, and certainly no survey that attempted to compare my university nationally with other British universities by measuring ‘student satisfaction’. I was doing the course I wanted to do, the one I had chosen, and wasn’t interested in whether my university ranked higher or lower than any other. In the 1980s, nobody ever talked about the ‘student experience’ as something that needs to be or even could be created in a top-down way. But I did have a good student experience. Some of my lecturers and classes were inspirational, some were dull and dry, they all had different strengths and weaknesses, but I strongly felt my learning experience was rooted in the reading and writing I did and the conversations I had with students and lecturers inside and outside of class. I felt fortunate to be in a space where I could do this. I believed that the more I read, the more I practised writing, the more I engaged in intellectual debate, the better experience I would have. Good friendships, cosy pubs and fun parties enhanced these intellectual experiences. I never ever considered whether the ‘feedback’ I got was detailed or timely enough. I got on with other things and I got my essay grade and comments when I did. I knew it was up to me to put as much into both my study (and my partying) as I could. The NSS turns that idea on its head, and suggests that if students are not happy, lecturers and departments can be blamed. I can put together an excellent reading list, try to impart in class how theorist X or Y changed my thinking, competently outline a key debate, but if the student doesn’t do much or any of the reading, or starts working on the essay too late so there isn’t enough time to enhance its theoretical sophistication, there is little else I can do. I am not selling you a handbag or a car or a chocolate bar, but instead we are engaged in a collaborative learning experience that depends as much on you as on me. If the student fails to understand something, gain theoretical insight or feel inspired, it is only partly my fault. Sure, we can improve our course design and delivery, but suggestions for those kinds of improvements should come directly from students to us. A faceless national survey is not the place to communicate such ideas.

Most of today’s students, despite working towards the collective national good by getting an education from which everyone benefits, are getting horribly indebted. Many of them are struggling to juggle full time study with part time jobs. They know that many graduates are working for the minimum wage in non-graduate jobs. Many are understandably anxious about what they are going to do when they graduate. I’m sure there is a close relationship between indebtedness and job precarity and the serious mental health crisis that is now a central component of the contemporary university.   Having been encouraged to think of themselves as consumers, students are understandably worried whether they will ever earn enough to pay back their debts and actually participate as consumers beyond their studies. For some, anxiety escalates and makes it hard to study effectively.

Satisfaction surveys work for real consumer experiences, not for student ones. The NSS is a bit like a restaurant asking you to fill out a survey for a meal that you had to go into the kitchen and cook for yourself. The expert and highly renowned chefs provided you with high quality ingredients and gave you detailed tips on how to make a gourmet dinner, but you had to prepare and eat it yourself. In this case, can you really blame the chefs if you over-cooked or over-salted your food and didn’t feel very satisfied after eating? Dissatisfied students might be ones who are unsettled by the destabilization of their worldviews, or ones who are not really working hard enough. Not working hard enough can result not just from laziness and lack of ability, but much more likely because of depression, anxiety, low self-esteem, racism, unemployed or underpaid parents, and the need to do too many hours of paid work to pay for education. How can a national survey which attempts to aggregate so many different people’s experiences, when class, gender, race and sexual orientation position them and us in the academy in so many different ways, have any meaning when potential sources of dissatisfaction are so multifaceted, when some are positive and necessary and others are negative and potentially intensified by economic or cultural disadvantage? We should consider the damage the NSS might be doing to institutional cultures and how it might be sabotaging the very thing it purports to enhance. Abolishing it would be good. At the very least, can we please stop getting our institutional knickers in a twist about it?

Heinemann J (2015) Time to confront the tyranny of surveys. http://teu.ac.nz/2014/12/confront-tyranny-surveys/ (Accessed 12 May 2015)

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7 responses to “I am not here to satisfy you: the NSS and our institutional knickers

  1. Pingback: The new fetish of the neoliberal university: student satisfaction  | Matters Mathematical

  2. Reblogged this on My Conversations and commented:
    I have been thinking about the NSS for some time now trying to figure out whether there are any good points (hm, no) and how best to articulate the bad… well this blog has done much of the work for me!

  3. Paul Johnston

    Absolutely. In my simple mind there is a very clear distinction between satisfaction and value (an insight supported by solid academic business and marketing research cf Cronin and Taylor 1992, Woodruff 1997, Day and Crask 2000, Salamonson Aberg and Alwood 2012) and obvious to anyone in commercial practice).

    Before I became an academic I had a career in the gaming machine industry producing slot machines. If you asked a player if they were satisfied when playing our games invariably they would say no because they would lose more often than win. That didn’t mean we changed our products and it the players still derived a sense of value from their playing experience in terms of the thrill of the game, decision making etc. We certainly didn’t fall into the trap of thinking the customer was always right and pandering to their every desire. If you asked a player what they wanted they would say ‘the jackpot on every spin’. It would of course have been commercial suicide to give them what they said they wanted. There is a difference between want and need.

    I would suggest that in a higher education context satisfaction refers only to an immediate sense of like/dislike. Value however refers to the lasting benefit derived from experiencing the rite of passage that is studying for a degree (cf van Gennep , Joseph Campbell) Higher education is often stressful, demanding, disorientating and confusing (cf Mezirow) and thus an ‘unsatisfactory’ experience. This ‘unsatisfactory experience’ however has immense value which can only be recognised by the transformed individual in retrospect.

    I recommend Gummesson E. (2008a), Customer centricity: reality or a wild goose chase?, European Business Review, Vol. 20 No. 4, pp315-330 – for a balanced and realistic view of the notion of customer centricity and not the half-baked impoverished understanding being bandied about

  4. Paul Johnston

    Reblogged this on Brass Glasses and commented:
    A fascinating post.

  5. So whatever happened to “passion” for subject… whatever happened to Individuality, instinct, creativity … you would have us “strangled ” by student expectation.. we would never move forward we would never be creative, we would never break new ground …. Although I do appreciate one can “manage” expectation ….. One should in my opinion never be timited my self expectation…. and is a “Satisfactory Job” good enough ????… I ask again… What happened to PASSION for subject and teaching???

  6. I think there’s a very significant difference between being satisfied in terms of having your ideas and attitudes challenged, and being satisfied with the more pragmatic element of the university experience. Of course university is an unsettling experience, one which is not always satisfying, and it should be. But this is very different from the dissatisfaction experienced by students when lecturers don’t turn up to their lectures; when the only feedback we receive on a piece of work we’ve spent weeks on is ‘very good’ and a mark which is not justified; or our contact extends to 4 hours per week of a lecturer talking at us – not with us, no platform for debate or discussion, simply ‘these are ideas, go away and read about them’. I think that it’s this kind of dissatisfaction which is often translated through things like the NSS. By no means is it a perfect measure of ‘student experience’, and there will always be the cases where individuals claim that they are dissatisfied because they didn’t get the exam grade they wanted, or the dissertation supervisor they hoped for – but that’s not the end of it. I personally think that the NSS does quite a good job of highlighting where some universities fail to provide exactly the experience you talk about above: one that does encourage students and inspire them to think. I rarely feel like I’ve been encouraged or inspired at university. I have found elements of the course, and been challenged to think about things differently, but I’ve left feeling like my degree has been nothing more than an expensive library membership. In place of my degree, I could have been provided with a reading list which I’d spent 3 years working my way through; I’d have been challenged in the same way, and not paid £27,000 to do it.

    I also think it’s very difficult to compare your student experience with mine. Based on many of the conversations I’ve had, university was actually probably a much more satisfying experience during my parents’ time there. It seemed like there was much more interaction, conversation, and university was directed at the academically elite and the passionate rather than the masses. But I also think it becomes a very different situation when students are paying for it. Unfortunately we are consumers with some rights to demand a better ‘service’ – if only the ‘service’ that was advertised, the one that we were sold when we applied. Of course this relies on the student also keeping their end of the deal – doing the reading, writing the essays, engaging etc – but it also should mean that universities provide the number of contact hours or field trips they advertise. This isn’t a simple business-consumer relationship, but actually just students just getting what they signed up for and what they agreed to pay for. I don’t think you have as much of a right to demand these things if your education is free.

    Furthermore, just because the NSS exists it doesn’t mean that other important issues, such as rape culture, being taken advantage of by landlords etc aren’t still given time and conversation. These issues are at the forefront of so many Student Union campaigns. There’s plenty of anger, frustration and dissatisfaction to go round.

  7. Excelent and AGREE
    Thanks. I’m starting classes with same philosophy ENCOURAGE TO THINK
    Best regards! I will share other concepts

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