Page last updated at 16:16 GMT, Friday, 25 July 2008 17:16 UK

Faculty in league table expulsion

By Sean Coughlan
BBC News education reporter

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

A university department is to be excluded from this year's official league tables of student satisfaction.

The removal of Kingston's psychology department data follows a recording which caught staff instructing students to falsify their approval ratings.

Students were told by staff if they gave negative responses "nobody is going to want to employ you".

The government-funded National Student Survey is intended to help applicants decide where to apply to university.

Kingston University says it accepts the decision and will work "to avoid any repeat of this incident".

The decision to remove Kingston's psychology department from the 2008 National Student Survey, set to be published in September, has been taken by the Higher Education Funding Council which runs the survey.

'It might sound biased...'

"It's very important that people believe in the findings," said a Hefce spokesman.

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

There have been claims in e-mails sent to the BBC News website that the survey, part of the quality assurance system, was being used by some universities as a way of improving their public image - including an internal university e-mail describing the survey as part of "reputation management".

Along with removing Kingston's psychology department, the funding council is expected to issue tougher guidelines to protect the credibility of the survey.

Staff at Kingston University were caught in an audio recording encouraging students to dishonestly answer the survey - telling students that inflating the ranking of the university would be to their own advantage.

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

"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," students were told.

The briefing from staff presented this official survey as an opportunity to promote a positive image for the university.

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

'Reputation management'

The recording showed 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 in the recording instructed students not to use the survey for negative comments if they were unhappy about the modules they had been taught.

"All that garbage you're spewing out about us" should not be included in the National Student Survey, students were warned.

The spokesman for Hefce says that the survey is intended to help to inform the decision making of university applicants and to give universities feedback about their courses.

It is also part of the quality assurance to make sure that public money is being well spent in higher education.

The survey is carried out in universities in England, Wales, Northern Ireland and in some participating universities in Scotland.

A statement from Kingston University said that it accepted the decision and "has been aware that this was the most likely outcome since this isolated incident first came to light".

"Kingston University has taken this situation very seriously and co-operated fully with Hefce as it has looked into the matter. The university plans to introduce an agreed script in the run-up to the next National Student Survey which will be widely circulated to students and staff to avoid any repeat of this incident."

Please submit comments using the form below.

Yes, those staff did the wrong thing ... but what they say about the value of degrees is going to be true, as long as 'league tables' are constructed by distilling these student views into statistics and then allowing or encouraging them to be used to rank whole departments or institutions against each other. Typical culture of measurement. The only way to level the playing field is to set up a (rather expensive) body which compares academic standards between universities, and then allow universities to use the kind of information you get from student surveys to work on their internal quality control. Good luck with this!
Geoff, Cambridge

I attend one of London's most prestigious universities on a business course. This happened to us too, and surely happens in many universities and on many courses, with a senior academic telling us almost verbatim what Kingston Uni are now being punished for. Given the high profile of league tables, ratings and prestige and the immense pressure to always move up - it is hardly surprising and surely not uncommon. That isn't to condone what the Kingston department did, but is to question the problem under the symptoms...
Anon, London

A true survey would be properly organised and would not have academics involved in any way shape or form and we should be advised not to discuss the survey during the time it is being done. We should not be asked to chase students to fill it in or be measured on how many of our students have completed it and have weekly "scores" of % of students who have replied to the survey posted on notice boards nad other prominent places. It is the survey's manager's role to chase students to complete the document and they should fully explain what it is all about. As a survey it has serious weaknesses and does not really help academic staff respond to the findings as it is not always obvious what the questions and answers actually mean. Feedback is a classic example where most students want more and most academics are puzzled as they supply large amounts but do students always know what "feedback" means? and do we academics know what the students want as feedback?
steve, leicester

Face it—after years of underfunding, UK universities have become businesses facing the same financial and competitive pressures that any business does. The surge in "fake" degrees awarded to foreign students who can hardly put two words of English together but pay £8000 a year into the profit centre is another symptom of the broken system.
Dr Robert Hancock, Tokyo

I have studied at three universities and am now a researcher my self, so I have filled in a fair number of these forms. I think most smart students figure out its in their own interests to give top marks, so if they still don't that is perhaps saying something!

In my experience, regardless of a university's reputation, the teaching standards are almost entirely down to the dedication (or otherwise) of the individual lecturer. League tables actually make it harder for universities to acknowledge and deal with poor teaching because every one's job depends on the results.

Non the less, student dissatisfaction with teaching standards has a depressingly long history. The ultimate goal that students should become independent learners, is too often used as an excuse by the arrogant or indifferent to justify the bare minimum of teaching time, because research is where individual and university reputations are made.

Until there is independent regulation of syllabus and standards, and recognition of teaching qualifications in career progression, this won't change. Yes, such a body would be expensive - but is it not strange that we insist on stringent standards of teaching qualifications, curricula and assessment for school level, but at HE level this is left to wooly notions of "reputation" and student opinion? It is ironic that Academia, for which honest rigour is supposedly its reson-detre, should accept "Univ. of Bloggs is really good" (Everybody says so 2008) as a valid statement..

Of course, it is a Kings New Clothes problem. Who will stand up and say their degree was easy?? But eventually the intellectual pound will devalue in the face of increasing competition if we don't maintain confidence.
Neil, Aberdeen, UK

Unless Kingston were making students fill in the survey under duress, they seem guilty only of pointing out the obvious. What is in it for a student, there for three years, to give honest answers to this survey? Even if poor survey marks forced Kingston to improve the quality of its teaching, and that's hardly guaranteed, those on courses of only three years will not see the benefit in their time there. This survey looks about as useful as surveys asking employees whether they are well enough paid, or whether NHS professionals think the health service has enough funding - what's in it for them to say yes?
Dan, Delhi, India

Our university also told us that while we should be honest, the uni's rating in the league would affect potential employers decisions, nudge nudge, wink wink.
Andy, Norwich

Without in any way condoning dishonesty either in this individual case or any other, this is a natural consequence of the centralised target-driven culture of government in all public services. I see this also in my own work in the NHS where staff patients are constantly being pressurised to raise measurements above arbitrary national 'targets', even though they know these targets have no validity whatever in the health of the patients. Of course they're going to cheat!
Desmond, Wimbledon, London

Unfortunately, as Lee Harvey, former Director of the Higher Education Authority, recently wrote in the Times Higher Magazine: "That these [results] are formed into scales and assumed to measure complex concepts is laughable. [...] What we have is an illusion of a survey of student views. However, it is so superficial and so open to abuse as to be useless." Even more unfortunately, this meaningless survey is driving changes in teaching (such as lectures on the semantics of the term "feedback") that are distracting from what a University education should really be about. I wholly agree with Harvey's conclusion "A much better exercise would be to explore student engagement to find out what students really seek from their higher education experience, rather than imposing a set of categories that have no resonance for most students and don't address their real priorities." It is important to monitor the quality of teaching in our Universities but the NSS is clearly the wrong way! to do it.
Tony, Sheffield

It is shocking that a good university like Kigston can take such low measures to improve it's reputation. I am an international student myself and hence i can understand the importance of these survey ratings for students. Selecting a good university to study abroad is a critical decison for foreign students as thier entire future is based on it. These surveys help them make the right decision and it would be nice if all univerisities participating in it realize its importance and help in making it reliable and accurate.
Nadya N, Cardiff and UK

I am a lecturer at an up and coming university and the surveys are not handed out by us, they are done by admin staff who set it up online and the students can answer anon, we can see the collated results, I know some of the comments are hard to take, but you have to sit back and reflect, if they are fair then I have to try and change things, if I honestly believe it's one or two students with a grudge, I don't take it personally, no institution gets 5/5 for everything, impossible. The surveys are useful, not life altering.
Lesley , Bournemouth

I teach at a university and have to agree with other comments that have pointed out that the Kingston staff were stating the obvious. There are a raft of internal scrutiny measures in universities conducted on all courses every year designed to get useful feedback to improve student learning for the next cohort. That is entirely right and proper. However, producing national league tables based on this kind of survey is misleading and unhelpful and does nothing to improve standards on the ground. To take an example, if a course is easy, students are spoon-fed and unchallenged and all achieve high grades, students are unlikely to complain. By contrast if students are expected to take a reasonable amount of responsibiity for their studying, are graded to high standards and consequently do not all get through on a nod, sadly in today's climate this is likely to provoke disatisfaction from those who feel being babied through their courses and coming out with top marks is their right irrespective of the work they put in and the level of their ability. Of course, not all students take such a cynical view of their studies, but enough do to make the national student satisfaction survey something to be taken with a hefty dose of salt but unfortunately we all know that is rarely done. That being so, the presssure on staff to encourage students to reflect on whether they really want to give negative feedback in a survey of this kind is intense and may not in all cases be unjustified.
Sasha , Scotland

In defence of the survey system, staff at universities should/could be using the feedback to try and improve their courses. Granted, some less mature students do mess around and put unfair comments, so I can see why university staff become frustrated. Neverless, this is a good opportunity for universities to improve themselves, rather than attempt to out-do each other in league tables.
David Corkish, Co. Durham, UK

I was a PhD student at one of the UK's top universities - the academic staff talked about nothing but how they could improve academic standards and the quality of their teaching (or being certain of maintaining their 5* rating). I was also a lecturer at one of the new universities, they talked endlessly about jacking up their assessment scores - never about actually improving academic standards. Employers don't need a league table, they already know which universities produce the better graduates. But prospective students DO need guidance. All too many institutions are basically hoodwinking prospective students (it's easy for an experienced academic to hoodwink an 18 year old) into thinking that some course or other is so great and that employers will lap them up - when the reality is the course has been thrown together and given a trendy name.
Dom, Norfolk, UK

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