Page last updated at 15:29 GMT, Friday, 16 May 2008 16:29 UK

Universities face survey warning

By Sean Coughlan
BBC News education reporter

Scouting for Girls
Scouting for Girls were hired as an incentive for students to fill survey

Tougher guidelines are to be issued to warn universities against manipulating the results of a league table of student satisfaction.

The Higher Education Funding Council says it will issue the guidelines for the next National Student Survey.

This week lecturers at Kingston University were revealed to have told students only to put positive comments in this official national survey.

The Cambridge students' union now says it doubts the survey's credibility.

The guidelines are expected to warn universities that they must not try to influence how students complete this annual survey.

Employment threat

It follows this week's evidence from an audio recording that students at Kingston University had been told by lecturers to falsify their responses to improve the university's ranking.

John Denham
Universities Secretary John Denham condemned survey cheats

Students were told that a poor rating would devalue their degree and "nobody is going to want to employ you".

The Universities Secretary John Denham told the House of Commons that he "utterly condemned" this attempt to distort the survey.

But hundreds of e-mails sent to the BBC News website have challenged the claim that this was an isolated incident - with students claiming that many universities are trying to manipulate the survey.

These include repeated claims that students have been told that a low ranking in the survey will damage the value of their degrees - using what one student described as "scare tactics".

There are also claims that universities are seeing the survey in terms of public image, rather than public value.

Academics contacting the website have highlighted how some universities advertise their "triumph" when they have a high rating in the survey - using the result to recruit new students.

'Reputation management'

Among the information sent by readers have been copies of internal e-mails between senior staff at Anglia Ruskin University.

The student survey faces tighter scrutiny next year

An e-mail describes the survey as being used by universities for "reputation management".

"Other HEIs (higher education institutions) are taking this survey very seriously as part of their reputation management, since the results are now featuring in league tables as the proxy for teaching quality," said an e-mail sent in January 2008.

The e-mail says that students should be aware that the survey results are "increasingly seen as a key component of a university's external reputation and that reputation will be attached to the qualification with which they leave us".

It also suggested that lecturers could end lectures early so that students could be "directed to nearby computer terminals to complete the survey".

The university accepts the authenticity of the e-mail, but says that the e-mail also includes the observation: "It is important that we do not attempt to influence students unduly and our key objective is to maximise the response rate."

Pop band offer

The importance of the survey to universities is also reflected by the efforts to ensure that as many students as possible complete the feedback.

At the University of Surrey, university funds are being used to hire a pop group, Scouting for Girls, as an incentive for students to complete the satisfaction survey.

Students were told by their student union that: "If 80% of you final year students fill out the National Student Survey, the University will give the Students' Union the money to put on this fantastic band."

A university spokesman said this was about improving the numbers completing the survey - and that there was no influence over what students said about their university.

But there have been wider questions about whether this survey can produce an objective picture of student experiences.

The University of Cambridge's student union says the survey's credibility is in doubt - as it appears to be influenced by the demands of external PR rather than being an objective assessment.

"There are serious questions raised about this. The argument is that these are isolated cases - but people are seeing it as a PR exercise," says Peter Coulthard of the Cambridge University Students' Union.

But the Higher Education Funding Council, which runs the survey, has said there is no evidence of widespread problems that could invalidate the results.

A spokesman says that students are intelligent enough to make up their own minds and that what they say in the survey is confidential.

There are also no plans to remove Kingston's data from the survey.

Has this happened at your university? Send us the details using the form below:

I was told at my university by the head of our law school that when we filled out this survey we were supposed to put in positive comments, leave the negative comments out and speak to the staff directly if we had a problem. This was to give a better image to the university. This I find is unacceptable on the basis that the university I go to has had many discrepancies and issues which I feel need to be recognised and dealt with by the school themselves about what really goes on and how students problems are not attended to by the administrative staff or lecturers. If my university will not take my complaints seriously, and make life at university a positive experience, why would I post postive comments to make them look better? I was also told that this survey will follow me around to any job interviews I may have, that the employer can pull this survey up and state any good or bad reviews or comments I posted. This I find peculiar because I feel it is really none of their concern on how I rate or view my university, and does not relate any work experience to make me qualified for a job.
Janine, Uxbridge

We were given an hour's lecture informing us that we are 'doing ourselves a favour' by reviewing the university positively, and to air our grievances by other means. If we were intending to give negative feedback we were instructed to see staff first.
Tom, Plymouth

Like other people's experiences, I was told repeatedly that the higher we rated the university in this survey, the higher esteem our degree would be regarded. Leaving bad feedback would only be to the detriment of yourselves and your fellow students. Now, I felt there would have been little to complain about anyhow, yet because of this I have chosen not to respond to the repeated pestering to complete the national student survey.
Tim, Bristol

We were pressed by tutors to answer certain questions in a particular way, and were not left alone to write our answers. It does mean we became fearful to write the pure truth.... It is our one chance to say what we feel about the course and uni, but it is made very difficult with this feeling of guilt if we don't say only positive things.
Kazza, Bournemouth

None of this is very surprising really, just an extension of the RAE (Research Assesment Exercise) star rating system. Clever/devious academic fields realised the extent to which departments rely on the star ranking to gain students. I'm sure it won't shock anyone to know lawyers and businessmen all gave each other high rankings while the cantankerous social scientists tore each other apart. It's a problem with ranking systems that requires many of these proxy 'tests' to be more objective and independent. Still, I remember my uni days fondly and would encourage anyone to seek out a uni experience and screw the untrustworthy rankings.
Tim Clark, London

The head of year came around and handed them out, telling us the better we did our responses the better funded our course would be and the better our university would look / our Degree would be worth more.

Belatedly, the Higher Education Funding Council is responding to the possibility that Universities might not aways manage to the highest standards. Yet HEFCE believes that it can rely on a 'single conversation' with Universities to define their responsibilities and a use a 'light touch' in its supervision of Higher Education. Taxpayers deserve more open, fuller accountability by this sector because of the huge amounts now spent and the financial burden put on our young people.
Jim, Corwen

This happened at my university. During one of our infrequent Student Rep meetings (where we are routinely ignored) we were "encouraged" to give the course five out of five, and to encourage all other students to do the same or not to bother filling out the survey at all. I gather that if the number of responses fall below a certain threshold then they aren't publicly disclosed.
Tom, Birmingham

We were basically told that bad reports on the survey would affect how future employers would perceive the degree we had undertaken, we were also told that our stats were down in comparison to the competitor universities.

The problem is not whether or not the students are able and willing to go against these requests from their universities. The problem is in the corruption in the university system which finds this sort of pressure or enticement acceptable. That corruption is also present in more serious ways in the RAE. The university managements, however, are under pressure from a government and culture that sees them as mere businesses, links in the consumer chain.
Jerry, St Andrews, Scotland

The survey is now totally redundant. As a result of the coverage, students in every University now know they should answer dishonestly if they want to push their University up the league tables.
Paul Smith, Glasgow

All these concerned comments seems to suggest that we don't think students in the final year of their study are capable of thinking for themselves. I think most of them are, and that shows when you take a comprehensive look at the results. Let's not let available data to the contrary get in the way of a good story though!
Ray Lashley, Colchester

This happens all the time in MBA rankings.
Al, London

This type of issue is not limited to the public sector. A company I used to work for had annual staff satisfaction surveys. We were told that we should answer honestly but bear in mind that the results were used int he company's Balanced Business Scorecard which in turn was used to calculate our bonuses, i.e. if we were "too negative" we would get smaller bonuses.
Jason, London

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University staff faking survey
13 May 08 |  Education
Students claim survey dishonesty
13 May 08 |  Education

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