Staff satisfaction in universities is important too

Professor Dorothy Bishop's guest column.

Universities have become obsessed with competition: it is no longer enough to do well; you have to demonstrate you are better than the rest. And to do that, you need some kind of metric. Organisations have grown up to meet this need, and to produce league tables that compare institutions on a range of characteristics, including research excellence, reputation and teaching.

The National Student Survey has become established as a major component of this process. It has run annually across all publicly funded higher education institutions in the UK. It features prominently in student guides to the best universities, such as The Guardian’s. There is no doubt that the survey has made universities more responsive to student views, and it is to be welcomed that reported student satisfaction levels have increased since the survey was introduced. Nevertheless, some, like Arti Agrawal, have expressed concerns about universities introducing quick fixes that may produce higher ratings in the short term, but lower academic quality overall: ‘With increased tuition fees, students are seen as customers who must be kept happy, and the NSS is now a customer satisfaction survey.’ We even have evidence that some universities have used student satisfaction as an index of the quality of the teaching staff.

It is perhaps not surprising then that at the same time as we are told that students are getting happier and happier, academic staff seem to be growing ever more miserable. Now this could, of course, just be down to the fact that everyone likes a good moan. But my impression from reading Times Higher Education and other outlets is that there is more to it than that. The same pressures that lead managers to treat students as consumers have led them to treat academic staff as dispensable ‘human resources’. The view of universities as institutions in constant competition with one another has trickled down to the departmental level, destroying any sense of collegiality. In the long run, if teaching is done by a body of demoralised and ever-changing academics, this can only be bad for staff and students alike.

But this is only anecdote, and it would be good to have some data. Times Higher Education started a Best Workplace Survey last year, which has the potential to provide just that. However, findings such as 39 per cent of academics felt their health was negatively affected by their work, and one third felt their job was not secure were hard to interpret given the vagaries of sampling. Concerns about the low response rate and potential for bias meant that THE decided not to report results by institution. My guess is that if we had proper survey data, and if staff satisfaction were incorporated into ‘best university’ rankings, then rank orderings might change quite dramatically. Furthermore, institutions that sacked staff to improve rankings might find their strategy backfiring.

The THE workplace survey for 2015 is now live. Take part: we need a solid basis for identifying those institutions that are genuinely at the top of the league, in terms of their treatment of staff, versus those who achieve a high status on other indicators while presiding over an anxious and demoralised staff.

- Dorothy Bishop is Professor of Developmental Neuropsychology at the University of Oxford. This piece was written for the Council for the Defence of British Universities. This column aims to prompt debate surrounding surviving and thriving in academia and research.

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