The National Student Survey promotes higher education as a service passively consumed by students but it should encourage students to take more responsibility for their own learning, says Neil McBride
It’s that time of year again, when final-year students in the UK are urged to complete the national student survey (NSS). This relentless pursuit of student feedback, through banners, advertisements and corporate screen-savers across the campus not only casts students as customers, but also illustrates the disempowerment that results from the consumerisation of higher education.
The customer-provider relationship is not, at its core, one of trust and compassion. It is rather one of tension, a power relationship between the service provider who holds the resources and the customer who can exercise the right to go elsewhere in a competitive market.
The problem with viewing university education as a service is that it reduces the customer to a passive subject of the activities of the provider: someone who something must be done to or for. The impetus, the responsibility and the risk are on the provider, not the customer.
Feedback is a two-way street. So why does the NSS only look one way?
A classic definition of a service is: a means of delivering value to customers by facilitating outcomes the customer wants to achieve without the ownership of specific costs and risks.
In the higher education marketplace, what is the customer’s desired outcome? A happy experience, a good time, an easy ride, a high grade? None of these generate what moral and political philosopher Alasdair MacIntyre calls “internal goods” – mastery, the sense of achievement, excellence and moral growth. Rather they are instrumental, focused on the external goods of acquiring money and material goods; they are structured in terms of power and status.
The NSS drives this focus on the external goods of a service and hence promotes a moral vacuum in which the virtues developed in practice are absent. The relationship between the student and the university needs to be reoriented away from a power contest towards a partnership in which the horizons of teacher and student are challenged and extended.
So I suggest an alternative NSS that addresses student responsibility, shifts from the passive to the active and positions the student as a committed co-creator of her education and her educational environment.
The alternative National Student Survey
The learning on my course
1. I review and read round to make sure I understand the material
2. I ask questions in and out of class when I don’t understand
3. I am inspired by the discipline and further my education through my own reading and study
4. I find the course and ideas interesting
5. I do more work than I have to in order to complete assignments
6. I engage with concepts that are difficult to understand and take time to grasp them
7. I recognise connections between subjects and talk to my peers and staff about them
8. I regularly meet with other students to discuss concepts from the course
9. I regularly attend clubs and talks about the discipline outside class hours
10. I seek to apply my knowledge in and outside university
Assessment and feedback
11. I make sure I understand the requirements of the assessment
12. I seek clarifications from staff about the assignment soon after it is set
13. I am more concerned about the quality of my work than the mark I achieve
14. I go beyond the criteria set because of interest in the work
15. I read the comments I receive about my work
16. I seek to apply them to subsequent work
17. I seek to communicate with staff and arrange regular meetings with my tutor
18. I notify staff of any problems and issues in a timely manner
19. I actively pursue subject choices when available to align my studies with my interests
Organisation and management
20. I attend student staff liaison meetings regularly
21. I seek to contribute positively to improving the course
22. I attend every seminar and lecture on my timetable
23. Where circumstances dictate, I arrange to attend alternative sessions
24. I have read the course and student handbooks and am familiar with them
25. I read and act on communication about the course sent through the virtual learning environment
26. I regularly use IT resources and learning facilities outside class time
27. I understand how to use IT resources to optimise my studies
28. I regularly work in the library and make use of the learning environment
29. I am familiar with and regularly access the library’s online publications
30. Where I have needed course-specific resources I have sought them out
31. I often find my own resources as well as using course-specific resources
32. I seek to connect with other students on my course and meet up outside classes
33. I participate in organising student groups and societies
34. I attend research talks and events organised by staff in my discipline
35. I participate in group work in class
36. I attend meetings of my class group outside class hours
37. I have spoken to most of the students on my course
38. I seek to help and advise younger students
39. I make suggestions for improvements on my course
40. I regularly thank staff for their efforts
41. I have experienced the implementation of my suggestions
42. Overall I am engaged with my studies and belong to the university community.