Page last updated at 10:44 GMT, Tuesday, 13 May 2008 11:44 UK

University staff faking survey

By Sean Coughlan
BBC News education reporter

Seminar
Students were instructed to exaggerate as "that's what everyone else is doing"

University staff have been caught pressuring students to dishonestly answer an official funding council survey of student satisfaction.

Kingston University staff have been recorded instructing students to inflate their responses in the annual National Student Survey.

"If Kingston comes down the bottom, the bottom line is that nobody is going to want to employ you," staff warned.

The university says it regrets this "isolated" incident.

The audio recording, published on Live! the student news website of Imperial College, London, reveals members of university staff strongly urging students to falsify their responses in this national survey, in order to create a more positive impression for the university.

'It might sound biased...'

"The reason it's important is the results of this survey get fed into a national database which then feed into league tables - and it's the league tables that prospective employers and postgraduate courses use to assess the value of your degree," an unnamed member of staff tells students.

If you think something was a four - my encouragement would be give it a five, because that's what everyone else is doing.
Kingston University staff to students

"If Kingston comes down the bottom, then the bottom line is that nobody is going to want to employ you."

Using an expletive, the member of staff tells students that a poor ranking will make employers think that their degree is without value.

The university says the recording is authentic and that it is investigating the identity of the member of staff, which the press office says it believes to be a lecturer.

This National Student Survey was introduced by the Higher Education Funding Council for England (Hefce) as part of its quality assurance process - "to gather feedback on the quality of students' courses in order to contribute to public accountability".

However the recording from Kingston University shows an attempt to use the survey to manipulate the university's standing.

"In effect you're competing against lots of students at other institutions who also want their university to look good," students are told.

"Although this is going to sound incredibly biased, you rate these things on a five-point scale, if you think something was a four - a 'good' - my encouragement would be give it a five, because that's what everyone else is doing."

'Banging my head'

The recording even shows students being told specific areas in which the university wants to change its "profile" by fixing the results of the survey.

The staff member tells students that there is a "dip" in the university's profile in giving students feedback. She says they might be failing to recognise the amount of feedback they are receiving.

"Feedback, in terms of this questionnaire, means what happens in seminars. Every seminar you have you get some interactive feedback from the person giving it.

"So if I ask a question and no one answers, and I start banging my head on the table, that is feedback.

"If I'm smiling and going 'yeah great', you're getting feedback. If you get a mark for a piece of work, that's what we mean by feedback."

Another member of staff instructs students not to use the survey for negative comments if they are unhappy about the modules they have been taught. "All that garbage you're spewing out about us" should not be included in the National Student Survey.

A spokesperson for Kingston University confirmed that they believed the recording to be genuine.

"We believe this to be an isolated incident and regret the inappropriate comments made to students about the National Student Survey, even if these remarks were not intended to be taken entirely literally.

"With regards to disciplinary action, the investigation has yet to be completed so no decision has yet been made on what action should be taken in this case."

The Higher Education Funding Council (Hefce) says it is aware of this incident and believes it to be authentic - and says it takes this "very seriously" - but that it does not invalidate the overall results of the survey.

The importance of this national survey has been emphasised in previous years by the Higher Education Minister, Bill Rammell - who called it a "powerful tool for student empowerment and institutional improvement".

"Academics up and down the country pore over these results to see how they are performing and how what they are offering can be improved," Mr Rammell had said about the survey.


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

I'm sure all universities do it, I know mine did. We were told that if the university isn't respected then your degree will be worthless. I didn't listen and gave them the marks I thought they deserved and I wasn't kind.
Keir Wilson, Sutton Coldfield

Sounds pretty familiar, we have also been told exactly the same thing, which just shows how useless the survey is, the survey is meant to provide a measure as to how a university performs, but as it stands the survey just tells us how much the university's students value the prospect of a job after graduating.
Simon S, Newcastle-upon-Tyne

So despite the fact that students have received instructions to make biased comments, the results of this survey are valid. Lies, damn lies and statistics? Seriously, this event, and many others like it are one of the main reasons for the breakdown of public trust in government, schools/universities, corporations, etc. The social changes some have labelled 'breakdown' is a direct result from this lack of trust. After all, how can you have any kind of relationship with people who you do not trust?
Steve, Leamington Spa

We've been told several times that negative feedback will reflect badly on us and damage our career prospects.
Paul, Manchester

The same happened at my university where lecturers were instructed by senior management to 'prep' students for the Survey. In the process, teaching and research resources were diverted to the task but on the positive side some jobs were created. In my mind, this is just another typical example of job creation in the public sector during the last ten years or so. I was wondering whether this is the improvement in higher education that parents and students were told to expect when asked to pay higher tuition fees (and taxes).
John B, London

This is a classic problem with league tables. The significance attached to the results will motivate those involved to distort the results in their favour. Most universities operate internal feedback mechanisms, including feedback forms for each course taught, enabling staff to get an unbiased opinion of what students think. By contrast, the NSS is a public relations exercise, and as such is of little benefit to anyone. Nonetheless, writing as an academic whose department did NOT massage the results of the most recent NSS and who received a kicking as a result, I can confirm that we have taken the criticism on board and made some solid improvements. Ironically, by conducting the process fairly and using the outcomes wisely, we have paid the price of looking less good in the league tables than those who have no interest in the genuine needs and opinions of their students.
RM, London

This is appalling. But it also shows how easily league tables can be manipulated.
Paul Midian, Kingston

To a greater or lesser extent, this happens everywhere. At my university, the reminders were constant and carried a threatening overtone. At one top London institution I know for a fact that students were offered 5 of printing credit to complete it, as said institution had received an insufficient number of responses to make the league table in previous years.
Patrick, London

As far as I am aware, this may be a fairly common practice amongst some UK universities. As a recent graduate it was only last year that, whilst feeling rather unsatisfied with the standard of teaching I had received, was 'reminded' by tutors that if I was to score my University low, potential employers would ultimately be less likely to employ me. Although, unfortunately this may be the case, I feel only giving true accounts of the standards of education received will spur Universities on to up their game and provide an education worthy of the tens of thousands of pounds it is costing our country's youth.
Adam, London

So, what is new? Before retiring I worked as a lecturer for a London university, a London-based Polytechnic and one of the "new" (converted poly) universities. "Cooking the books" at every level, from admitting students without proper qualifications, awarding First Class Honours degrees to morons, and "fixing" research output, was commonplace. The lies told in order to gain prestige and funding were (and presumably still are) unbelievable.
Dr Colin K, Algarve, Portugal

The problem with the National Student Survey is that the response rate is very very low. The respondents are often those who feel poorly served by the university (rather than those who were satisfied and therefore don't bother replying). This means that universities find themselves rated by a very small percentage of students (in which the disgruntled are disproportionately represented). Nonetheless these ratings are high profile and therefore universities are obviously taking "unusual" steps to up their ratings. Not condoning Kingston mind you, but the problem also lies with how the survey is conducted and its results used.
WB, Norwich

A couple of points of accuracy, for WB and Lara O'Reilly: the current overall response rate is about 65%, which for a survey is pretty high. And while in its 1st year the NSS did go over the top in canvassing, they admitted this and have since taken steps to address it. But there are still aspects of this process that mean the results - even if not falsified - should be interpreted with great caution, and not used either for flag-waving or as a stick with which to beat an institution.
Jim Thomas, London

It looks like a case of "kill the messenger". The lecturer was telling the well-known truth about "target" cultures. NHS, police, schools - everything in the UK now has "targets". They have to be simple tick boxes which can be "measured" - things that have real value are usually "too difficult". If people's promotion, pay, or even self-esteem, are linked to the effect of a decision - then they will be tempted to convince themselves they need to "talk it up". When that means patients suffer, or innocent people are arrested, or schools narrowly coach for SATS, - then our society has become morally corrupted by the actions of the politicians. So - the students are learning a lesson in the UK "University of Life".
ChrisJK

We had pretty much the same message at my university. In fact it made me rate it more negatively due to these tactics. Unfortunately it highlights the culture for institutions in the UK, all about targets and league tables.
Tom D, Nottingham

Same thing happened. It's a sad but true fact that all they cared about was public image. Rather than getting a true portrayal of the university's profile by real hard worked for results, they would rather falsify feedback, and pump more money into self image and marketing they loosely term as "partnerships". There is a great deal of disillusion within the university in both students and academic/technical staff, and the management who know about it seem to prefer to sweep it under the rug and carry on with their image branding crusade. If I had known what I know now about the university I would never have taken the course offer.
Pete, Leeds

I agree with most of the above comments and can recall a similar case of "the lower you grade your uni the less your degree is worth" the sad fact is they're right. My tutors at the time stressed the fact that if we had any concerns we should approach the faculty and not use the survey. Also for any students thinking of filling in the survey I don't recommend it, as you'll get an awful lot of spam from MORI.
CJ

Don't the National Student Survey themselves try to pressurise students into filling out the questionnaire? I know countless numbers of people who have been bombarded with e-mail and phone calls being almost forced to participate. And then there's the endless gimmicks (You stand to win an Ipod if you fill out the survey). It's not just the universities that are to blame.
Lara O'Reilly, Kingston

Guess they don't do a foundation degree in ethics then.........
Huw Carden, Llandeilo

I can only speak for my department at Sussex university (life sciences) but we have always been told that if want to see any change at our university we have to answer honestly! I have found the university to be very proactive when it comes to student complaints- there have been ongoing battles about contact hours and in my first year about the huge amount of work that was taking around 4 months to be marked. The contact hours (mainly for humanities subjects) is an on going arguement but not one the university shies away from.
Andrew Bryant, Brighton

A University at which I worked as a Reader did this sort of thing regularly with both staff and student surveys. I once had a stand-up row with a senior administrator because I had not put the "right answers". Friends at other Universities say they and their students are also pressured. Of course, this is purely anecdotal but perhaps it is indicative of a wider malaise.
Dr Ian Sedwell, Weymouth, UK

I'm at the University of York and we were just told to answer honestly.
Helen, York, UK

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SEE ALSO
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12 Sep 07 |  Education
'Most students' happy with course
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