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The problem with treating students as customers, or how module evaluation questionnaires and our timetabling policy damage the student experience

A long title, sure, but this issue lies at the root of many of the intractable problems that are having a most severe effect on our members.  We want our members, both ERE and MSA staff, to recognise that we can improve both student and staff experience without succumbing to the rhetoric and false logics of the marketisation of higher education (our strategy Simply Better, as we have now been told, has its roots in a “radically conservative” self-help marketing book by the same title).

This blog covers only the aspects that we addressed at the UCU JNC on 12 October 2017, but we are very happy to continue the conversation offline, and welcome members’ contributions. We would particularly encourage members who are on Senate to consider how they can help reframe the conversation within the university governance structure.

Module evaluation

There are so many things wrong with the ways student evaluation is used and interpreted, across the sector and in our own institution.  While it is important to have a means of informing module enhancement and tools for examining student experience, end-of-semester module evaluation questionnaires are, at best (even when they are conducted and interpreted appropriately), limited in the benefit they can impart, particularly that the students themselves can experience. We have created an initial resource for members’ use, centred on mid-module evaluation – already practice in some faculties – as a much more constructive way to engage students in effective change: click here to see our suggestions for Module Evaluations and Simply Better.

There is a weighty, constantly evolving literature that shows “student evaluation of teaching ratings and student learning are not related,” that “teacher effectiveness is negatively correlated with students’ evaluations,” and worse, that unconscious gender bias affects “even putatively objective aspects of teaching, such as how promptly assignments are graded” to a statistically significant degree. Our submission to the October JNC was unequivocal about this bias, and we consider the discussion to have put the University on notice. Management cannot now claim that they are unaware that student module evaluation questionnaires bear a significant and demonstrable burden of discrimination in contravention of the Equality Act, and  SUCU will support any member of staff wishing to commence a grievance who can show that their module evaluation scores have been used in a way that causes them to suffer detriment (see also the upcoming blog on our Appraisal discussion).

Timetabling policy

At the October JNC, we also addressed some serious issues with the Timetabling Policy:  currently, although it ostensibly allows for reasonable adjustments under the Equality Act, it contains a hierarchy of protected characteristics and who has those characteristics, student or staff – which rather confounds the concept of equality.  It also jeopardises the University’s Athena Swan award, so we want this fixed sooner rather than later: we have asked that the policy be considered as a matter of urgency at Policy Review.  We are also deeply concerned that some members with protected characteristics are being refused flexible working/timetabling requests, and we are pursuing this with the Equalities Officer as a matter of priority.

The conversation then turned to that aspect of the policy that has created disaffection and distress in the whole community: the fundamental principle (3.12.a) that student choice determines the timetable, not the other way around. We all know the havoc this manifests at the beginning of each semester, and it is not uncommon to find that we do not know where we are teaching, even days (or working hours) before the beginning of the semester, or that for a week or two (or more) the class size can be greater than the number of students a room can accommodate.   But it has ramifications further into the semester: for instance, if your module assessment design is based on an average intake of a certain number of students and you find you have double or half that number registered, all sorts of problems arise at the point of assessment (inadequate time for presentations, inadequate numbers for effective group work etc.).

This is not something on which the union is empowered to negotiate directly, but we can hold a view and we can represent our members’ views to the JNC.  We know that timetabling problems and mismatches between module design and module enrolment, issues wholly or largely out of the control of individual departments, have directly contributed to poor outcomes on NSS. We strongly assert that academic staff should not be held accountable, through measures taken via the Education Strategy, for problems created by a misguided adherence to the notion that student module choice trumps all other considerations.  Given an appropriate and meaningful choice, students – as far as we can tell – would opt for modules and courses to run smoothly and predictably: perhaps less variety overall, but with more timetabled options for popular/core modules.

Students are not customers, and strategies to address customer satisfaction (as if we were the book Simply Better‘s illustrative businesses Toyota, Tesco, and Ryanair) are not the first place we should be looking to improve the “quality of education and student experience we provide.  If senior management wants to know where the stresses are that make the real differences, then all they have to do is ask, listen, and accept – even if the message is not one they particularly want to hear. The Collegiality strand of Southampton’s Simply Better demands “high-performing leadership and management” and a “community built on trust and taking personal accountability.”

Go on, then. Let’s talk, and put it right – for all of us.

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