In light of the recent release of university league tables, it would appear that Edinburgh is near the top of its game. Ranked 23rd by The Complete University Guide (2018) and positioning 27th in the 2018 Times Higher Education World University Rankings makes it hard to believe that there is much to criticise about our institution. Like most things however, there is a lot more to this than just a number.
Founded in 1583, The University of Edinburgh is one of the top global institutions, which has offered world-class teaching, innovative research and developmental opportunities to students for over 425 years. Nonetheless, over the years, the university has frequently been subject to criticism for failing to reach the mark in terms of course assessment and feedback, resulting in low student satisfaction and, consequently, a continuous drop in the league tables.
In 2010, Edinburgh was placed 11th in The Complete University Guide’s (CUG) rankings; it then fell to 18th in 2014 and has not seen much progress since. The survey used by the CUG to determine rank, takes into account a number of factors such as research quality, academic services, as well as the all-important student satisfaction, where the university tends to mark most poorly.
To put this into greater context, since 2009, The University of Edinburgh has not managed to score over 4/5 within the category of student satisfaction, which is considerably lower than that of rivalling and even lesser named, institutions. More concerning, these findings are not exclusive to this particular survey. In fact, The Guardian’s 2018 University League Table marks Edinburgh 59.5 in terms of student feedback satisfaction, the lowest of all of the universities on the list.
Despite this, considerable alterations have been seen to be made within the university, in an attempt to improve these statistics. As well as participating in numerous surveys designed to help enhance teaching methods and student experience, including the Edinburgh Student Experience Survey and the infamous National Student Survey (NSS), smaller scale changes have been made to the way in which the university and certain departments are run. Among these, some of the most notable are a third and fourth year “essay clinic” that has been launched within the school of Philosophy, Psychology and Language Sciences (PPLS), and, within the Law school, the creation of many more opportunities for students to voice their opinions regarding modules and teaching. The question now, is whether this is enough to sufficiently improve student satisfaction, and right issues such as limited one-to-one time, slow feedback and disorganisation within departments, all of which students have pointed to as being key failures within the university.
Needless to say, perhaps consideration also needs to be taken as to whether the surveys conducted to determine university ranking are effectively, and indeed sufficiently, assessing issues such as student satisfaction. The Student sat down with Jim Donaldson, co-ordinator of the PPLS Writing Centre, to ask him what he thinks about the university’s current position with regard to student satisfaction.
Student: What do you think of the fact that academic feedback is having such a huge impact on student satisfaction?
Jim: It doesn’t surprise me that improving feedback has a positive effect on student satisfaction. It’s very distressing if you aren’t sure how to improve your work.
I think everyone involved experiences frustration with feedback. Students sometimes aren’t sure how to interpret the comments they receive and are hurt when they find out they’ve fallen short. Teachers worry that students are concerned less with comments than with grades, and also have to guard against handing back essays dripping with red ink, as that tends to demoralise rather than instruct. The best way around all this, in my opinion, is to introduce multiple stages of feedback.
S: What are you/the department doing to improve this?
J: At the PPLS Writing Centre, eligible students can bring in their work to discuss with tutors who know the field. The best way we can help them is not to solve the particular research problems they’ve been assigned, but to show them how to approach the problems in a way that’s suitable for their area, whether that be philosophy, psychology or linguistics. The tutors know the conventions and can tell the students when they’ve gone off track. We also look at the way the students write and help them to make sure that they’re successfully communicating what they have to say.
S: What services are going to be implemented?
J: One-on-one sessions are currently being offered to Honours students and taught postgraduates. We also have a series of workshops designed for the student population of PPLS as a whole. Finally, we have started a blog to collect resources and provide advice on how to write.
S: How do you anticipate this will improve student satisfaction?
J: The advice from the one-on-one sessions can be put into effect without waiting for the next assignment. It’s very satisfying for the student to be able to act upon feedback immediately, and the resulting essays are easier to comment on for the teaching staff because there are fewer things to attend to.
Expanding on this, perhaps it is fair to question whether it is in fact surveys such as the NSS, not students, that are failing universities, by offering an incomplete reflection of the institution and putting such a great emphasis on league tables as being the be-all and end-all. Chris Husbands, chairman of the Teaching Excellence Framework (TEF), supported this point, stating that NSS scores are not an “accurate proxy for teaching quality”. Not only this, but as can only be expected, the obsession with league tables leads universities to become excessively preoccupied with their position on it which, as The Telegraph’s education editor, Camilla Turner, suggested last year, “could lead professors to pander to the needs of those so-called ‘snowflake’ students in order to maintain a high ranking.”
Furthermore, in the past numerous students have criticised the survey’s rigid yes/no format for preventing expansion on, or explanation of, the questions posed. For those who are unaware, the questionnaire lays out a series of statements that the student is required to mark with one option on a scale from ‘definitely agree’ to ‘definitely disagree’.
The statements are such as ‘staff are good at explaining things’ and ‘the course is well organised and timely’. As one can imagine, this offers a very limited scope on the issues presented and fails to touch on every aspect of the course, thus making it difficult to draw effective conclusions on the university.
Laura Warner wrote an interesting article for the Times Higher Education regarding the NSS process, remarking that: “It’s extremely difficult to answer 23 closed questions about a whole three years [or four in the case of Edinburgh] of your life – and it’s inevitable that you make generalisations”.
Perhaps instead of focusing so intently on a mere number in the league tables, we should instead be questioning the integrity of the student survey system and whether it can offer a true and complete depiction of a university, particularly with regard to student satisfaction.
Image: Xu Suye