As many sweltering academics beaver away on research outputs of various sorts in libraries, offices and domestic writing havens, the British summer heat wave continues its relentless assault. With nary a sprinkle of rain on the horizon, the monsoon that is REF 2021 is a weather warning like no other, crackling with thunder and lightning in the minds of many scholars. But there is another storm fast approaching. At the time of writing, the annual NSS scores are due to be released imminently, with university leaders, managers, programme administrators, deans, heads of department, professors and lecturers growing hot-under-the-collar, fearing the blow-torch that may be about to tan their hides.
When I started my first full-time academic position at Bournemouth University in 2014, I distinctly recall meeting my new colleagues with excitement and rose-tinted optimism. But one memory stands out above all else: two highly respected programme leaders had been summoned to the Vice Chancellor’s office for ‘high tea’. An invitation that sounds all nice and Enid Blyton – perhaps Agatha Christie would be more apposite – but which I soon learned signified a head on a butcher’s block, a gleaming guillotine, the executioner’s axe, the weight of Damocles’ sword hurtling downwards (any instrument of assassination will serve as metaphor here). Indeed, the very welcoming, if somewhat bourgeois, ‘high tea’ has since become more synonymous with ‘high noon,’ with the anxious academic armed with a peashooter against the manager’s Uzi-9mm. On this occasion, however, one of the programme leaders was to be congratulated for managing to miraculously elevate the NSS scores into the 90s, as if s/he had secretly attended the Hogwarts’ School of Witchcraft and Wizardry, or possessed the skill of the Jedi Mind Trick. “How did you manage to achieve such a substantial increase in NSS scores?” queried the Vice Chancellor in his role as King Arthur questing for the Holy Grail (although more Monty Python than myth in this context). “I don’t know,” replied the Programme Leader. “Perhaps it was hot and sunny on the day they completed it?”
Although at the time I certainly delighted in such a bald riposte, I now remember the occasion as an accelerated learning curve in academic life and one that purged me of early career naiveté in one fell swoop; a naiveté that has since been transformed into brutal cynicism over the past three-and-a-half years or so (it didn’t take long). The programme leader’s comment about summer and sunshine having a positive impact on the NSS might well contain a rebellious spirit, jocular though it is, but this response also profoundly struck at the heart of the beast, challenging the way in which the NSS is wild and untamed, a metric that cannot be policed or controlled by academics working at the coalface of higher education regardless of the so-called ‘quality’ of teaching—for it is not a measurement of quality or ‘student satisfaction’ in any meaningful way whatsoever. One would think that if satisfying students were a true aspiration, and not an economic objective, then slashing budgets for counselling services at a time when “depression and suicide among students are at worrying levels” would be highly unsatisfactory indeed (Lightfoot 2018). According to the Office of National Statistics, 95 students killed themselves during the academic year 2016-17 (Weale 2018). This is as serious as it gets. Without doubt, the way in which the NSS is being used as a tool with which to measure duty of care and responsibility beneath the misnomer of ‘satisfaction’ is harmful and dangerous (Williams 2015).
There is a simple way to solve the aporia of NSS scores and one that has been raised time and again in recent years by many. “There is empirical evidence that student satisfaction is higher when students are given straightforward assignments and awarded higher grades,” writes Dorothy Bishop (2016) for the Times Higher Education. “Relying on NSS to measure teaching quality is like using people’s choice of food to evaluate nutritional content.” Metaphorically, a summer’s day is more likely to mean that students will be satisfied if they have done well and obtained a degree classification to their liking (usually a 2:1, more often a first these days). It doesn’t take a psychic to predict that an eminently dissatisfied student is more likely to be one who has performed less than they expected and uses the NSS to vent their frustrations. All this despite empirical evidence demonstrating that university grades have been climbing over the past decade, a phenomenon known as ‘grade inflation.’
In June 2018, the higher education think tank, Reform, investigated grade inflation in HE, and published findings that can only be viewed as a damning indictment of UK universities in the current historical moment. As written by Tom Richmond (2018), the report claims that there is considerable
pressure being placed on academics by senior managers at universities to lower their standards [and] is also strongly implicated in grade inflation. Some academics have chosen to express their concerns publicly, even though this has on occasion put their own career at risk. One cited the “intolerable pressures on academic staff to pass students who should rightfully fail and to award higher classes of degrees to the undeserving”; while another complained that they had routinely awarded essays low grades “but have been brought under pressure, internally and externally, to provide higher grades.” The sheer volume of similar reports, documented over many years, is concerning and its potential impact on grade inflation is obvious enough […] Several other factors have been cited to explain the inflation, such as the pressure from league tables, greater competition between institutions and a more ‘consumerist’ attitude from students.
Managers across various institutions have responded in recent years with their own variation on Trump’s ‘fake news’ discourse by arguing that it is more than likely that “admitting students with higher A-level grades, improvements in teaching quality or students working harder than ever before” are responsible for the rise in degree classifications. Richmond’s report, however, baldly states that these counter-arguments “are rarely supported by research findings and in any case they are often contradicted by the extent and rate of inflation in recent years.” You would think that one could prove anything with facts, as Stewart Lee once quipped, but it seems as if we truly are living in “the age of peak bullshit”, with academia not being immune to the global stench of cattle excrement, unfortunately.
Consider the following: Grade inflation was not detectable at all in the mid-1990s, with only 7% of students awarded a first-class degree across consecutive years (1995, 1996, 1997), a figure that had remained more or less consistent since the 1970s. But since 1997, there has been a steady increase in first-class awards, an increase that has occurred every single year since, meaning that grade inflation has been, well, inflating annually for twenty-one years. More than this, however, is that the speed at which the percentage of first-class degrees has risen has also accelerated over time. As Richmond (2018: 12) states in the report,
in the twelve years from 1997 to 2009 the proportion of Firsts almost doubled from 7 to 13 per cent, yet in just seven years since 2010 the proportion of Firsts has doubled again from 13 to 26 per cent (climbing from 22 to 26 per cent in the past year alone).
It should come as no surprise that the recent spike in grade inflation occurs almost in parallel with the introduction of the new student fee infrastructure in 2012. Equally, it cannot be denied that both the NSS and the hike in fees are part and parcel of the same blunt instrument wielded by university leaders to discipline not only lecturing staff, but Heads of Department and Executive Deans as well. For Vice-Chancellors and Executive Management Teams at the institutional apex, the mathematical formula is one of simplistic causality. That is to say, the more successful the students, the better the NSS results; the better the NSS results, the better the position in league tables; and the better the position, the more student applications. And more students equal more money, naturally. Once we add in the TEF, the REF and whatever else, of course, the threaded knot becomes infinitely more Gordian.
From this perspective, then, the NSS is viewed as a direct, casual linchpin connecting multiple items beneath one umbrella- and a neoliberal corporate one, at that. Thus, if the NSS is lower than managerial targets (usually 90%) then it is we – the academics, the researchers, the lecturers, the programme leaders, the HoDs and Deans—who are expected to bear the brunt of failing to adequately stimulate the bottom-line.
Many have been told that students are now ‘consumers,’ or paying ‘customers,’ enforcing the belief that university degrees are nothing but a transaction.
This posits students as consumers, leading them to demand value for money and complain often and loudly when the ‘product’ they have purchased does not quite meet (what they perceive to be) their needs. The ever-increasing attention paid to commercial league tables and exercises like the National Student Survey only add to this trend. These performance indicators and league tables function as powerful market currencies – with universities investing increasing resources in their effort to move up rankings and hence improve their value proposition in a competitive market (Warren and Fenton 2014).
Grade grubbing is now as regular as zero hour contracts, with many students bravely confronting senior academics with accusations of ineptitude. I’m sure I’m not the first lecturer to be told by a student that, in no uncertain terms, “I pay your wages”, as if that somehow means that I should heed instructions to elevate grades, regardless of the quality of work. Nor will I be the last to listen to student complaints about how so-and-so’s essay was not as good as their essay, so why have they been discriminated against? (The last time this happened to me, I asked the student to sit down at my desk with an unmarked essay; I gave them the marking criteria and said I’ll be back in twenty minutes, to which I was strongly told: “I’m not qualified to do that!” Quite.)
If anything, the very concept of quality is under attack by the NSS, by student fees, by neoliberal management hell-bent on nothing but money, money, money fed by metrics, metrics, metrics. I’m certain that many academics across the sector will have recently been confronted with radical shifts in assessment policy, often with pedagogical logics attached as qualification. To be able to pass a 20-credit module with only 3000 words of summative assessment, with the absurdity of formative, ungraded assessment being invoked as more be-fitting student learning in the 21st Century, is rapidly becoming a key strategy. It’s not difficult to see why.
I should say that I’m not laying the blame at the student body’s footwear. It is not their fault that the system as it currently stands is hardly fit for purpose, not forgetting that young people are burdened with a catastrophic level of financial debt. As Milly Williamson emphasizes, “the language of ‘student choice’ and ‘student satisfaction’ is a rhetorical device—saddling students with debts of £30,000 is hardly an empowering move” (2014). Many students work full-time jobs, too (which I didn’t have to do). It is hardly a secret that there is a crisis in student mental health as mentioned earlier; and it is hardly surprising considering the pressure cooker that they currently reside in. How often have lecturers been confronted by highly emotional undergraduates buckling beneath the weight of stress, anxiety and depression? Far too often, I should think. Pastoral care is an important responsibility, but the vast majority of academics are not trained mental health practitioners. But how ethical would it be to refer students to a counselling service that has a six-week waiting time for appointment? Crisis is not something that can wait.
It’s time for the NSS to be dismantled completely by those with the power to do so and return the focus back to education for its own sake, not for the current system of metrics and measurement that not only harms students and academic staff but the sacred principles of education in the twenty-first century. I’m not the only one who strongly believes that we
must take every opportunity to redefine the student experience away from an ill-defined short term notion of ‘satisfaction’ towards the long term satisfaction that comes from encountering intellectual challenges and deepening knowledge and understanding (Williamson 2014).
Lightfoot, Liz (2018) ‘Universities outsource mental health services despite soaring demand,’ The Guardian, 17 July. /education/2018/jul/17/universities-outsource-mental-health-services-despite-soaring-demand
Williams, Joanna (2015) ‘The National Student Survey should be abolished before it does anymore harm,’ The Guardian, 13 August. /higher-education-network/2015/aug/13/the-national-student-survey-should-be-abolished-before-it-does-any-more-harm