So I had a pretty interesting little exchange with the organisers of a new university lecturer-rating website today… We’re in a peculiar place with university education these days. There are a lot more universities these days and students are being a lot more picky over places of study now that they are (in the UK, at least) paying £9k per year to study. This has put an increasing emphasis on league tables and metrics of quality. I thought I would share a few thoughts on these developments because I am both personally interested and professionally invested in the success of my institution in the great scramble to adapt to a new way of “doing university”.
Rate Your Lecturer
It started with this:
Phil Baty (@Phil_Baty) May 30, 2013
People were negative:
I was curious:
Chris Hassall (@katatrepsis) May 30, 2013
We had a bit of an exchange after that, and Twitter isn’t really the place for reasoned discourse. Most of the issues that I wanted to raise are fairly well documented at the Rate My Professor Wikipedia page. Still, I’m always willing to try new things, so I did this:
RateYourLecturer (@RYLecturers) May 30, 2013
..and then to the heady heights of number five on what must a very sparse league table! I stand by my concerns. People might think that academics are all unfeeling researchers who only teach when they have to, but I can’t think of anyone among my colleagues who thinks like that. We all put our hearts into our teaching and find it very rewarding (most of the time, anyway!). More than that, we have lots of ways in which we can see what the students think of our teaching:
- We have staff-student committees where student representatives let us know what we can do better and liaise directly with the staff who make the decisions about teaching provision.
- We have module feedback forms (which aren’t used by the students as much as we would like) on which we collect objective and longterm, comparable data on student satisfaction and teacher performance. This is extremely important to us.
- Finally, we ASK THE STUDENTS. I like to think that I maintain a fairly informal teaching environment, and I always ask the students if they find things useful/irrelevant, interesting/boring, and what else they would like to do.
This is not even including the Key Information Set that already contains data comparing student satisfaction with teaching in particular programs. My main concern is that students will be presented with too much information to use to make these decisions and that they will not be sufficiently aware of the limitations of different datasets to make good use of them all. Ironically, this is what we teach them once they get to university!
The final point about the Rate Your Lecturer movement is that it seems to miss the point of universities. They are very much emphasising the teaching role, which ignores the fact that academics have a tripartite job (some would say we have three jobs) as (i) administrators who run the departments and faculties, (ii) researchers who generate ground-breaking research, and (iii) teachers who educate the next generation of citizens. ALL academics do this. We are not “teachers”, “researchers” or “administrators”. We are all three. Which would you value above the others? With a funding crisis brought on by small falls in student enrollment, perhaps we should be focusing on teaching. But where does that leave research? And what about making sure that there is a well-run department in which we can teach and research?
League tables, generally
In general, universities are under a great deal of pressure to perform, and by “perform” I mean increase our rankings in league tables. The Research Excellence Framework is the UK’s main method for judging research outputs and impact, and that is coming to a head in a few months time. The National Student Survey is the other important metric by which we judge ourselves. This covers the teaching aspect, but from the students’ perspective. These vast number of different league tables that are constructed out of these combinations of metrics are extremely confusing for staff, so they must be confusing for students… On the plus side, if an institution isn’t doing well on one table, they’re probably doing well somewhere else! You’ll probably see “ranked in the top 10 in the country” on far more than 10 universities’ websites…
So what do we do?
To be honest, I don’t have a plan. We are in a time of change, and I can’t help but feel that the successful universities will be those that are able to enact transformative policies (i.e. those that change their way of doing things in a BIG way, rather than incrementally). Whether the bigger, older universities have that kind of manouverability remains to be seen, but I’ve seen some really important steps forward in the few months that I have been at my institution and that makes me really excited for where these new challenges are going to push us!