Students claim universities are manipulating the survey
Students from a range of universities are claiming they are being pressed to make falsely enthusiastic responses to an official satisfaction survey.
Staff at Kingston University were recorded telling students to falsify their ratings in the government-backed annual National Student Survey.
In response, hundreds of students have e-mailed the BBC News website claiming this is a more widespread problem.
The higher education funding council says the survey is not invalidated.
The National Student Survey, set up by the funding council (Hefce), provides a league table of student satisfaction - which is intended to be useful for young people choosing a university.
Endorsed by the government and funded by the taxpayer, it is part of the process of quality assurance in higher education.
Caught on tape
But an audio recording made at Kingston University revealed that staff were instructing students how to respond to the survey - and using it as a way of promoting a positive image rather than an honest assessment.
Hefce says that it knows of a handful of other cases where concerns have been raised about the student survey.
In response to the story about Kingston, hundreds of e-mails sent to the BBC from students and academics claimed to have seen attempts to manipulate the survey.
These include claims that lecturers were instructing students to submit only positive responses and that special talks were being held to sell this message.
"The message was practically shoved down our throats. Give us good reviews or your degree won't be worth much and you'll look like you're coming from a rubbish place in your interviews."
"We had at least three 'special' lectures on it, and a school wide announcement and e-mails and it was announced in induction events," wrote Brian from Newcastle.
"To a greater or lesser extent, this happens everywhere. At my university the reminders were constant and carried a threatening overtone," wrote Patrick from London.
"We were threatened by our university course leader: if you honestly answer the questions, you will suffer. He was suggesting if we aired our problems in the student survey the course would gain a negative reputation, thus: our qualification useless," wrote Lou.
A repeated claim is that students have been told that their future employment opportunities will be boosted by improving the university's reputation - and that the survey is a way of achieving this.
"We've been told several times that negative feedback will reflect badly on us and damage our career prospects," e-mailed Paul from Manchester.
"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," wrote Keir from Sutton Coldfield.
But universities contacted have rejected the idea that there are widespread problems with the survey - or that students could be given advice on how to answer questions.
Hefce also defends the credibility of the survey.
"Apart from Kingston, a very small number of cases has been brought directly to our attention. Again each of these has been or is being investigated.
"They generally relate to a very small part of an institution's provision and the institution has dealt with the issues in a responsible manner," said a spokesman.
"We are confident that there is no evidence of systematic attempts to manipulate the survey outcomes by institutions," he added.
"We do not consider that the cases that have come to light call into question the robustness of the survey and believe that the great majority of students will take the opportunity to provide accurate feedback on their experiences," said the funding council spokesman.
But even though there seems to be a difference of opinion between the e-mailers and universities, there are academics who say that anything involving league tables will inevitably be linked to PR.
A student at Bournemouth University complained via the university's website that he had been disappointed to have a lecture interrupted to "pressurise us into rating the university well in the National Student Survey".
In response, the Dean of Business, Chris Brady, wrote of the survey: "What I said, and I am happy to stand by it, is that we need to work as a team to add value to your degree and that entails internal feedback and external PR."
Professor Brady says that his university does not influence how people respond to the survey, but he says that "anything that ranks anything has a PR element".
Has this happened at your university? Send us the details using the form below:
At Oxford we were just sent an email informing us of the survey, telling us it was important to complete it, and giving us the link to its webpage. Nobody has ever directly spoken to us to encourage us to complete it, never mind to falsify our results.
Michael, Oxford, UK
Cambridge University Students Union boycotts the survey and actively discourages students from completing it every year as far as I can see, and for good reason. The National Student Survey does not reflect life and work at Cambridge accurately, and the questions are not designed in such a way that answers can really show the breadth of experience, teaching and research undertaken here. The whole thing is a farce.
Vicki, Cambridge, UK
Sounds very familiar; rather like the inspections at college, students being trained to answer because if the school/uni doesn't get a good result they (and the students) look bad. I'm proud to say my university didn't do that though. The closest they got to encouraging answers was "We give you 5 pounds to take the test" all the while strongly encouraging us to answer it honestly.
I'm a lecturer at Queen Mary, University of London. We have been put under some pressure by the College management to improve our scores on the NSS, but I'm not aware of any attempts to get our students to answer the questions dishonestly. It's hardly surprising that staff at some institutions have taken this too far -I can imagine that the bean counters everywhere get all worked up about this, since it's an easily digestable set of numbers, and it's simple for the powers that be at any institution to instruct their staff to "make the numbers higher". This will distract staff from providing high-quality teaching, and I can imagine that a lot more effort is spent on trying to improve NSS scores than is spent in trying to improve teaching generally. Of course, this means that the information content of the NSS will rapidly degrade, as happens with all measures of performance that are made targets - Goodhart's law, originally formulated for economics, applies here.
The very basis of the survey is questionable as well. Are stressed, tired students at the end of the second term of their third years really in a good position to assess the quality of their student experience? At this point in their studies they should be working as hard as they have ever done in their life, and if they're all relaxed and happy then something is wrong with the degree. It would be far better to ask them their opinion of their undergraduate experience a year after graduation, when they have had time to reflect on it. ...
Rob Knell, London, UK
I hope students, in Kingston and elsewhere, are mature enough not to give in to PR pressures. The designers and publishers of rankings, on the other hand, should have a duty to point out where their ranking may be biased.
Prof. Philippe De Wilde, Edinburgh
The headline on this story is misleading. It seems obvious that every university is trying to up their results - just like people talk up their abilities in an interview or on a CV. This is not faking, just emphasising the positives.
I am in my final year at Nottingham Trent University. All the 3rd years were sent letters, a number of emails, even phone calls asking us/telling us to do the survey. This didn't work so we were told in big red letters "£5 free printing credit for completing your student satisfaction survey". No doubt we all did it. This is how desperate my uni is to got a better review.
I am amazed that you seem surprised. Government ignores the reports from whistleblowers preferring to get good 'news' and to pretend that we have a high proportion of 'graduates'. The concept of truth is in my experience almost lacking at the highest level of at least one 'university'.
Alfred Vella, Milton Keynes
I'm not sure about systematic attempts to manipulate the survey results at my university, but there has certainly been a LOT of phone calls and emails sent urging students to complete the survey. I must have had around 6 or 7 calls over a few weeks from the student survey office asking me to fill it in.... The kicker being, I already had online and apparently they lost the results from a lot of us!
Robert Ord, Leamington Spa
Welcome to the real world, the educational institutions won't take responsibility for poorly taught modules and bad teachers and yet urge students to cheat for them. Question, if a lecturer is willing to push students to cheat in a public arena what is that lecturer willing to do to get the target driven bonuses on student grades?
A H Ardon, Herts
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
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