by Philippa Costello
Any third year undergraduate with a pulse will be aware of the impending juggernaut that is the National Student Survey (NSS). If they are not aware, they almost certainly will be soon. The months of phone calls, posters, and haranguing at every possible opportunity will see to that.
One of the key areas contained within the survey, and one in which the university continues to obsess over, is its scores on Assessment and Feedback. UEASU has for a long time been calling for action to tackle this issue. Students have repeatedly reaffirmed the view that they have a right to good quality, prompt feedback on their assessments. This is, of course, a vitally important issue. Whether or not you agree that students should be paying £9,000 in fees, receiving decent feedback should surely constitute the most basic ‘value for money’.
Here then is the crux of the issue: if getting work back quicker is going to mean that the quality will decline, then what is the point in the feedback at all?
Traditionally, the SU has campaigned that the university should do more to improve its coursework return time. Equally important however, is that the feedback returned is of a good enough quality to actually be of use. Academic colleagues regularly report being overworked and under resourced, therefore unable to provide as high a level of feedback as students would desire.
Here then is the crux of the issue: if getting work back quicker is going to mean that the quality will decline, then what is the point in the feedback at all? The issue, therefore, is not clear cut as it first may seem. As students, we form an integral part of the wider academic community. To that end, we have a responsibility to ensure that our academic colleagues are treated with respect, and are given the right kind of support to ensure they can provide us with the kind of feedback that we deserve.
From the university’s perspective, the main driver for improving its scores on assessment and feedback, is, as always, the ever elusive ‘student satisfaction’. NSS scores bear significantly on the institutions scores in the league tables. This has created competition between institutions – on how quickly they can turnaround assessments and hence improve their scores. A market solution for a marketised, consumer-led higher education sector.
We should be rejecting a system where students are treated as consumers, and where education just another brand of toothpaste.
What is missing from this debate is a meaningful conversation about what assessment means: how much of it, of what kind, and how it fundamentally contributes to our academic discovery and self-development as students. We should be rejecting a system where students are treated as consumers, and where education is just another brand of toothpaste.
Instead we should be challenging our institutions to think creatively about assessments. We should be questioning how students are assessed, how assessments are contributing positively to student development, and thinking about innovative ways in which students can be engaged in content delivery. We should be looking at how we use that to harness a sense of academic community amongst students and staff. But that isn’t the conversation that is currently taking place. Instead there is a persistent drive towards pushing overworked staff towards meeting ever more stringent demands on arbitrary return dates.
Our colleagues in the University and College Union (UCU) have lodged long-standing complaints about workload issues many staff face across the institution. The majority of academic staff already go above and beyond for us, it is not fair for us to be campaigning for tighter regulations with harsher penalties unless we are going demand that the institution put its money where its mouth is and can resource it appropriately.
Illustration © Robert Neubecker via slate.com
The way to achieve a good education with quality feedback is not through forcing tired, overworked, underpaid academics and PGR students to churn out what is likely to be poorer quality feedback at an even quicker pace. The solution to question whether setting arbitrary targets is the way to achieve prompt, good quality feedback, and when targets are set, to understand why staff are unable to meet them.
If we aren’t able to understand the problem of assessment and feedback and look at proper solutions, we only threaten to make things worse. If we are unable to highlight resourcing or systems as the potential causes of the problem, and simply demand action, we are implicitly supporting the narrative that academic staff are the problem, that staff are lazy, that they don’t want to help students. This is not true. Let’s take action on assessment and feedback, but let’s tackle the root of the problem, and show support for those people we expect to provide it.