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'At the Mercy of Students'

May 29, 2014

Academics at the University of Surrey are considering a vote of no confidence in their vice chancellor, Christopher Snowden, over a new teaching evaluation method based on student satisfaction scores.

Under a staff assessment program introduced this term, lecturers are expected to achieve at least 3.8 points out of 5 in module evaluation questionnaires (MEQs) completed by their students, union leaders say.

Those who fall short of this score will be asked to attend an “informal capability meeting,” the first stage of procedures that can eventually lead to dismissal, according to the union branch. However, the new method for assessing teaching standards has been condemned by many staff, who complain that their careers are now entirely dependent on scores from students completed online, anonymously and often only in small numbers.

Rob Fidler, who co-chairs Surrey’s University and College Union branch, said that it was wrong for lecturers’ futures to be decided by a “popularity contest.”

“Staff are entirely at the mercy of students and how popular their module is,” Fidler said.

“If you are teaching statistics, a course that students might not like, you are put at a disadvantage through no fault of your own.”

He said that as many as 150 members of staff had so far been placed in the procedures, although the university had refused to confirm this figure. “It’s quite scary – it’s not about educating students, but pleasing them,” he added.

The UCU branch is now considering whether to hold a vote of no confidence in the leadership team, which is led by Snowden, who is also president of Universities UK. According to a message from Snowden published in an April newsletter, Surrey also wants to increase minimum MEQ scores by 2017-18 and “will expect every individual to reach 4.2” to ensure that the university average is 4.5.

The evaluation system is part of the institution’s Vision 2020 strategy, which aims to “fully secure Surrey’s position as a top ten university,” he writes. To achieve this, steps are being taken to ensure that “all eligible research-active staff are in a position to be submitted to the 2020 REF exercise,” with “acceptable performance” classed as achieving a research rating of 10 out of a possible 16 (staff will submit up to four research articles, with four-star work judged “world-class”).

Paul Stephenson, Surrey’s director of human resources, said that the “vast majority” of staff members were performing at “extremely high levels” but the university was “working with a small number of academics who are currently not meeting the standards that we would expect against certain research and teaching criteria, to help them to improve over the next few years.”

He added that “MEQs give students a formal mechanism to provide feedback on many aspects of the student experience” and “are extremely useful in assessing the performance of our academics."

The evaluation exercise was a “course of action [that] is fair, reasonable and typical of any ambitious and successful organization,” Stephenson added. “In fact, we are aware that other leading universities have been through a similar process – and Vision 2020 has the full support of the university’s council,” he added.

 

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