I have been so wrapped up in Clearing and preparing for the new academic year that I missed a recent Guardian article about the National Student Satisfaction Survey (NSS) completely until it appeared in my Facebook timeline. The article claims that the Survey should be abolished before it does any more harm. I couldn’t agree more.
The NSS is one of my pet hates (I have many), one of those utterly stupid games we feel we must play in HE. The articles captures its uselessness for actually telling us anything well. I won’t add to that here but I do want to reflect on how the NSS and all that comes with it plays out for me. The NSS is a game, unfortunately it is a game with high stakes with the results heavily influencing university rankings and rankings heavily influencing student recruitment and with student recruitment heavily influencing the institution’s bottom line… You get the drift. Just leaving students to complete the survey, or not, as they wish is thus a risky strategy. Students must be encouraged to complete it, cajoled or bribed into completing it or, dare I say it, forced into completing it. We didn’t force anyone to complete the survey here – at least not that I am aware of but the university offered prizes/discounts etc when certain completion rate thresholds were reached.
Of course completion is not enough – we need positive scores. The survey is a ranking tool, not a tool through which universities genuinely seek feedback from students. So how do you ensure your students give you the ‘right’ score? Well I would argue you don’t. You let them get on with it and if they mark you down you should have a think about it – they may have a point, they may not! But that’s not how it works in HE anymore. We are constantly asked to think about student satisfaction. What can we do to enhance it, what can we do to make sure we get high scores in the NSS? These are entirely the wrong questions to ask in education. Education is not about being satisfied. Higher education is about learning to cope with uncertainty, about being pushed out of your comfort zone and to your intellectual limits, it’s about confronting your own prejudices and ideals, it’s about thinking deeply and critically about everything you thought you knew. That is a lot of things but it probably isn’t ‘satisfaction’ – particularly if you find it difficult.
I am all for seeking and listening to student feedback and students’ views. I am open to having some really challenging debates with students about what they want from their higher education. I will challenge their views and expect them to challenge mine but I don’t pay much attention to the NSS. It doesn’t tell me anything about how to make our programmes better or how to engage students. It doesn’t tell me how to be a better teacher or how to help students learn. The higher the scores go and the less variation there is, the more depressed I get. There are so many things wrong with higher education at the moment, programmes and universities vary so much, it is absurd to think that the scores across the sector could genuinely vary so little. So the results tell me this: – we are teaching our students to tick boxes in a stupid game that tells us nothing. That’s not why I’m an academic, don’t know about you.
So here we are again. It’s the end of September and in universities across the country staff are welcoming new students. I have just spent three days in London in various meetings and they all in some way required me to think about what we teach, how, why… my head is full of that strategic, high level, sometimes theoretical, sometimes just jumping through hoops stuff that I guess is now my job. It’s been interesting, it’s been intense and it’s been fun and as always after these sorts of meetings I am knackered. And yet, as I head back north there is an underlying excitement about the coming week. It took my a while to figure out what it was but now I have it: I’ll be teaching next week. I am excited about teaching! I can’t wait to get back in the classroom. This excitement started to build on Monday evening, just a little bit. I was giving the induction lecture to the new first years on Tuesday morning and on Monday I was getting exctied, on Tuesday I was buzzing. The hour in the lecture theatre on Tuesday was, it seemed at the time, everything I had been working for over the summer. They were here, the first years were here and I could fire the starting pistol for the journeys that can change their lives – that could change the world. Wow.
On Wednesday I took one of the tutorial groups for our sample/intro tutorial and personal tutor meet. Again I was excited and again the experience didn’t disappoint. It was a small group and we sat and chatted about so many of the things that matter to me – law, justice, morality, legal education, making a difference. I can whinge about students as much as the next academic but let’s not forget that we can learn so much from them, that if we encourage them to engage with us, we will be better for it. So, induction is over. I have my first EU Law lecture on Tuesday – I’ll be telling stories about EU citizenship (just in case anyone cares) and I can’t wait. Am I nervours? Hell yes, I will be walking into a lecture theatre with 100+ students and I’ll be putting my views, my research, my knowledge on the line. I’ll be performing and performances can go horribly wrong but I will have fun; and I will learn something and the more I think about it, the more I cannot imagine an academic career without teaching. That’s not an option for me, I need to be in the classroom, thats where I can see my vision, ambitions, hopes and dreams come true; it’s where I make a difference and it’s where I can re-charge my batteries and my sense of humour to help me deal with all the other rubbish being a manager in the HE sector can throw at you. So, I may be Head of School, but I have no intention of shifting all of my teaching – that’s just not me!
It looks like I will again be teaching EU law next academic year. I am sort of excited about this but I am also already thinking and worrying about it. Most students don’t really enjoy EU law and many find it boring and difficult and frankly irrelevant to them. So what am I going to teach and how and why?
Well, we have a first year course which is all about the EU instituions, law making etc – what you might call the instituional, administrative and constitutional elements. Our Level 2 course is a substantive law course which has always focused on free movement of goods, services and persons. I can’t change that too much as the modules are validated along those lines.
So my plan for year one is to focus on the legal elements of EU integration and think about how law and legal processes have pushed the integration agenda. I want to think about power relationships between actors, relationships between institutions and between Member States and the EU and each other. I want to think about gender awareness in this context – well because that’s my thing and because it gives me an angle to make this more engaging.
Year 2 – well I guess I will stick to mostly free movement stuff but I think I will start with questions around EU migration and explore contexts of highly skilled, low skilled, economic activity, other activity, meanings of citizenship etc. Maybe there is scope here to also explore the external dimensions and some Human Rights stuff. I’d like to do less of the goods and services stuff because that’s not where my interest and expertise lies – although there are some cracking cases and having an understanding of the internal market is useful and important.
I’m thinking if not recommending a specific textbook but prepare detailed reading lists based on online material, a fairly detailed module manual and journal articles, blogs as well as some textbook chapters. So, what do you think? Any suggestions for how to make these EU modules stand out, make them interesting and engaging. Suggestions for coverage, approach, materials? What do you do? What works?