Who gives a damn about ‘student satisfaction’?

Sunday 19 October, 10.00 until 11.30, Cinema 2, Barbican Me, Me, Me Politics

Ten years of surveys of students’ satisfaction show hundreds of thousands of students in the UK are entirely satisfied with their courses. Overall satisfaction rates are now over 80 per cent and some courses get 100 per cent satisfaction scores. The original aim of the National Student Survey (NSS), to drive forward improvements in the quality of teaching, appears to have been achieved with little cost to staff.

But is the picture as rosy as it appears? Student unions now see ‘student engagement’ and ‘student satisfaction’ surveys as a means for fee-paying customers to ensure they get the best-quality education. Parents use them to help make the right choice for their offspring. Government and university management see them as marketing tool and a way of putting pressure on, or getting rid of, bad lecturers. Academics, however, are more likely to see them as an expression of the ‘culture of complaint’ on the consumerist campus. Is this simply resentment at finally being held to account, or is there more to the critique of the recent ‘marketisation’ of higher education?

The promotion of the ‘student experience’ and concern with ‘student satisfaction’ is presented as ‘empowering’, but some critics say it is a top-down scheme that both patronises students by flattering their judgement and undermines what is really most valuable about the experience of university. After all, students may be satisfied but few proponents of satisfaction surveys ask on what basis students should be the judge of course quality. A focus on what students feel they get from their teachers surely misses the fact that by definition they know less than their teachers to begin with, and are perhaps not best placed to judge what they need to learn and how. For critics, then, student satisfaction undermines the intellectual challenge that should be at the heart of going to university – a place where you can think the unthinkable and say the unsayable, as well as experience the discomfort that comes with being confronted with those things. In that sense, shouldn’t higher education make you dissatisfied?

As John Stuart Mill said: ‘Better to be a human being dissatisfied than a pig satisfied; better to be Socrates dissatisfied than a fool satisfied.’ Does student satisfaction make for happy pigs rather than potential Socrateses?

Listen to the debate:

Nicola Dandridge
chief executive officer, Universities UK

Nicholas Hillman
director, Higher Education Policy Institute (HEPI)

Professor John Raftery
vice-chancellor, London Metropolitan University

Jack Rivlin
editor-in-chief, The Tab

Dr Joanna Williams
academic; author, Academic Freedom in an Age of Conformity; education editor, spiked

Professor Dennis Hayes
professor of education, University of Derby

Produced by
Professor Dennis Hayes professor of education, University of Derby
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