In an increasingly outcomes-driven regulatory environment, HE providers are under pressure to capture more student feedback data. However, it is important not to confuse collecting more data with listening to students or empowering individuals to have their voices heard.
Student feedback is often described as empowering. The National Student Survey (NSS) website, for example, claims it gives students “a powerful collective voice.” Overall, the assumption is that collecting more student feedback data is a fundamental good: for students, for the institution, for everyone.
Yet up and down the country, piles of feedback forms are left untouched at the front of lecture halls. Meanwhile Amazon rakes in thousands from increasingly lavish incentives to get students to fill out surveys and academics throw their hands up in despair, asking “can’t they see we’re doing this for them?”
Is it that students are apathetic, uncaring consumers? Or is the madness in the method?
As part of my master’s research, I ran focus groups with students and asked them what they thought it meant to have a voice at university. It’s probably no surprise that students were less than enthusiastic about feedback surveys, but they raised some important points about current practice that the sector would be wise to consider.
Through data, students have very few opportunities to change things for themselves. Feedback surveys tend to be distributed at the end of something – a unit, a semester, the final year of a degree – asking students to evaluate something they’ll likely never experience again.
That’s all well and good for future cohorts and for institutions concerned with demonstrating continual improvement – but “what about me?” students rightly ask.
Where their feedback does lead to changes for their benefit, students have little say in discussing their evaluations, or deciding what happens as a result. Students didn’t see handing in feedback forms, just so other people can make decisions on their behalf, as particularly empowering.
Worse still, in regards to the NSS, students’ lack of control around what happens as a result of their feedback is decidedly disempowering. The highly politicised nature of the NSS leaves students conflicted about whether to give overly positive responses – to improve the standing of their department and enhance their own employability – or to be honest and put those things at risk.
Then there’s the issue with the link between the NSS and fee levels through the TEF and the post-18 review. The idea that their voice could be manipulated to support something they fundamentally disagreed with is the reason many students in my study rejected the NSS altogether.
What is it for?
Finally, the students I talked to recognised that they had some authority when seeking personal support or making a complaint, but less so when it comes to decisions about pedagogy or national policy.
In other words, after all the important decisions have been made, students can have a say when something starts to goes wrong. Far from being partners in decision making, students feel as though they have all the influence of a commuter rating their last Uber trip.
Safeguarding student voice
Despite the rhetoric, feedback forms fall short of providing opportunities for individuals to discuss what is important to them. Or to enhance their own experience before any real problems occur. The students I talked to felt as though they had a voice when they could sit down with a staff member they trusted and engage in dialogue about their studies.
With increasing class sizes and pressures on teaching staff, feedback data is useful in enabling staff to monitor the student experience as face-to-face interactions become less practical. However, we mustn’t forget that this is an impoverished version of rich conversations that are truly empowering for students.
There are ways institutions can safeguard student voice. They can engage students in discussions around feedback data, support student representatives to be a voice for students (as opposed to a form of ‘student experience consultant’), and provide opportunities for students to shape the pedagogy and policy that actually affects them.
In recent weeks, the data-driven Office for Students has started to welcome more dialogue with students and it is looking as though the new Quality Code will include something meaningful about student engagement after all.
So the picture is not quite as bleak as it was a few months ago. But, as the pressure mounts to collect more data and measure outcomes, institutions can’t lose sight of the processes that enable them to truly listen and respond to their students.