NSS can severely damage morale
Delegates say 'bully's charter' fails feedback test and requires a health warning. Jack Grove reports
Universities are using the National Student Survey as a "bully's charter" to intimidate staff, cut courses and force out maverick thinkers, academics have claimed.
Speaking in Manchester at the University and College Union's annual congress, lecturers launched several scathing attacks on the annual student-satisfaction poll, saying it was deeply flawed and undermined teaching standards and staff morale.
Delegates backed a motion to replace the NSS with a better feedback system, while a second motion, approved unanimously, said the survey was unfair as it allowed students to "name and defame" staff anonymously.
Steve Issitt, UCU branch president at the University of Birmingham, told the conference on 8 June that some academics at his institution had been told that their contracts would not be renewed unless they received scores of at least 3.5 out of 5 in the survey.
A Birmingham spokesman said that it did not "rely on any one measure" to assess staff performance.
"It is a bully's charter," said Liza van Zyl, membership secretary at Cardiff University. "I have been in meetings where vice-chancellors and senior managers have shouted and harangued staff with low NSS scores when it was not their fault: it was down to management failings."
Many members also argued that the use of the NSS discriminated against minority groups, who were rated less favourably by students regardless of their teaching ability.
"Research shows you get better results if you are a man, tall, white and good-looking," said Paul Blackledge, UCU branch secretary at Leeds Metropolitan University.
"This is being used to force through the neoliberal agenda and close courses. We must fight it."
"It's not about using student feedback - which is a good thing," argued Marion Hersh, senior lecturer in biomedical engineering at the University of Glasgow. "It's about controlling people."
Other members claimed staff had faced bullying from senior managers if their NSS scores were low. Others stated that comments in the survey were no different from the "gossip" found on websites such as RateMyProfessor.com. Students often used the process to air grievances, and academics had no opportunity to defend themselves, they added.
Andy Marley, branch chair at the University of Lincoln, warned that academics had been threatened with disciplinary action if their students did not take part in the survey.
"We should make clear these scores should carry a severe health warning," he said.