White Paper & student experience: dogma dressed as policy

The White Paper ‘offers fudged technocratic fixes to try to correct a series of failed political fudges’.

Too right, and nowhere more true than in the sections on the student experience.

The White Paper tells us that it aims to put excellent teaching back at the heart of every student’s university experience. I couldn’t argue with that, but I’m very unhappy about the way it tries to do it.

It does it essentially by peddling a fiction. The story is that if students know more about relative quality, largely through surveys and equivocal statistics such as ‘student workload’, then by a mysterious alchemical process university teaching will get better.

Chapter 2’s title articulates the myth: ‘Well-informed students driving teaching excellence’. The White Paper presents no facts to support the assertion that informed students produce improved teaching. Someone just seems to believe it’s true.

Chapter 2 itself starts badly, as it means apparently to go on, by incorrectly telling us that students are generally satisfied, but that they are not satisfied with assessment feedback. HEFCE’s own research concluded that the dimensions of the NSS can’t be compared like this, and that the NSS isn’t a satisfaction survey anyway.

It continues with dubious numbers from student self-reports about hours worked, misquotes a piece by Graham Gibbs to imply that the quantity of contact with academics determines quality — which it doesn’t — and uses all this to justify the production of the key information set — a collection of data which will ‘make the English higher education system more responsive to students and employers’.

This is mere dogma dressed up as policy and justified by cant.

The other main student experience chapter is number 3. It gets away in fine style by misattributing a report I wrote for a previous incarnation of David Willetts (gimme a break, guys!). It then descends into a rambling account of student charters, student complaints and a rather chancy risk-based approach to quality assurance designed as a sop to research intensive universities.

It also suggests publishing internal student evaluation results as a way of informing student choice and stimulating competition. This may be intended as a joke, but it doesn’t seem very funny. I suppose it means more opportunity costs for universities – more jobs in back offices, massaging module feedback and presenting it in a fit state for public consumption.

I could go on, but it’s getting too much like shooting fish in a barrel.

If all the increased control and mechanical box-ticking is the government’s idea of freeing up the system, then I hate to think what a more centrally-managed approach would imply.

What do I find most upsetting? Underlying it all is the derisive assumption that we have a lot of poor student experiences and bad teaching – and that this justifies more manipulation from on high. This is not only a fudge and wrong: it is terribly naïve for someone with the intellect of David Willetts.

You don’t need to justify improving the student experience by making up stories about how bad it is. It is generally pretty good, and that’s exactly the reason why it needs to get better and better.

Next post: The 18 policy recommendations on improving the student experience assessed individually. 

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