Universities: can’t get no satisfaction

Sunday 14 October, 17:3018:45, Frobisher 4-6Battle for Education

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While measures of student and staff satisfaction are all the rage in universities, dissatisfaction is the reality. Lecturers have recently been involved in long-running disputes over pensions and pay. They are not satisfied. Vice chancellors and managers are fighting to get higher up in the increasing number of league tables, such as the Research Excellence Framework (REF), the Teaching Excellence Framework (TEF) and the Knowledge Exchange Framework (KEF). They are not satisfied. Students are worried that the university is not a safe space for them. They are not satisfied. The Office for Students (OfS) has been created because the government believes there is not enough focus on the students and their career prospects in universities. It appears that no one is satisfied with the state of higher education today.

Arguably, this is a bizarre turn of events. The words ‘service’, ‘satisfaction’ and ‘customer’ weren’t automatically associated with the university in the past. But as universities have begun to shift from public institutions to private businesses, service and satisfaction have become focuses of attention. A new generation of students – arguably more vocal and more concerned with their own wellbeing and future careers – are reorienting the university experience around their demands. Many lecturers report being terrified about the outcome of student evaluations and are concerned about the National Student Survey, saying it encourages students to see their experience at university in terms of customer satisfaction, rather than a chance to broaden their minds.

But as university fees have increased, can we really blame students for wanting a ‘satisfying’ experience? Students now turn to universities for all manner of extra-curricular needs, from work experience to mental health. An estimated one in four students are seeking help from counselling services at some universities, and universities up and down the country have made student mental health a top priority, with counselling services, therapy sessions and pastoral care being offered to all students.

Even the university administration is now expected to focus its energy on the ‘S’ word. UK universities minister, Sam Gyimah, has unveiled plans to start giving university courses gold, silver and bronze ratings by 2020, as part of an ongoing effort to improve the ‘value for money’ of the university experience. Vice chancellors and managers are fighting to get higher up the league tables in order to make their university more attractive to prospective students.

Is anyone satisfied with the state of higher education today? Do we need to do more to make university life more satisfactory for both students and staff? Can universities be saved? Or is this dissatisfaction a sign that we are experiencing the end of the university as we know it? Do we need to rethink the university?