Authors: Tracy Kirk, Glasgow Caledonian University; Dr Ashley Rogers, Abertay University.

With thanks to the academic colleagues we spoke to in putting this post together – across the UK.

In how many jobs would employees expect to face anonymised attacks upon their appearance, their character, their ethnicity, their gender, their class, their clothing choices, their teaching style, approach and expertise… all at least once, potentially twice a year?

It’s nearing the end of term. You are knackered, drowning in marking and have exam boards, module evaluations and programme reviews to do. Quite simply, you are likely feeling drained and in need of a rest – some time to pay attention to your mental health.

We don’t need to look far to see mental health problems within Higher Education, or indeed in society itself. However, as semesters end there is increasing anxiety, worry and even fear around the looming release of module evaluation results. Add to this an overwhelming and increasing focus upon achieving student satisfaction, ensuring students are happy with their learning experience, course content, their relationships with staff and a broader research community and the combination of anonymous module evaluation surveys and good staff-student relationships don’t seem to be compatible.

Academic Freedom

Working in Higher Education, we all have an interest in our subject areas: we are all working hard to ensure our students learn as much as possible during each seminar, each lecture, each module and ultimately each programme. We strive to ensure our materials and readings are up to date, and we are committed to doing so because not only it is our job, but for many of us, our subjects are also our own personal interests. No matter staff intentions, no matter how conscientious staff are and no matter how ‘approachable’ or ‘friendly’ colleagues are (however those terms are to be defined and perceived), the heavy pressures of league tables, NSS, module evaluations or module improvement surveys are a constant source of ‘excellence-finding’ that are unsustainable in their current form.

We are all individuals with varying academic styles and we work in different ways – in fact it’s one of the benefits (and necessities) of working in academia, right? For example, from speaking to colleagues across the Higher Education sector in the UK, we know there are those with dyslexia who would prefer to physically interact with students during additional office hours instead of managing mountains of e-mails. Equally, there are colleagues who reply to e-mails in the evenings and weekends. Both of these practices are fine, but being forced to do one or the other is not. People manage their workloads and times in different ways that suit their needs and, importantly, their mental health. It is therefore not about standardising communication practices at universities but about encouraging conversations and building an environment that accommodates all of us. Managing student expectations of staff is central to this. After all, no two students are the same either…

Managing Expectations

It is with student experience and expectations in mind that we are all increasingly aware of the module evaluations we receive (alongside the NSS and other league tables): the pressure to meet target response rates, the target rate of the illusive ‘student satisfaction’, that it feels like now is the time for a rethink. The lack of dialogue about this process between students and staff has led to tensions in relation to the ‘free comment’ sections of module evaluations, and the free reign to denigrate staff members’ character as it suits. From recent informal Twitter conversations, HE staff have pointed to gendered, racialized and classist comments – about appearance, accent, and clothing. In some institutions, the controlled response questions are also equally problematic in their wording. At some institutions there is a focus on the ‘performance’ of a lecturer and how ‘engaging’ they are, which is rated using terms such as ‘poor’ or ‘very poor’ – to describe a person. Anonymous surveys conducted after admin deadlines for changes to modules are not effective and do not aid staff or students. They cause frustration. With each cohort being different from year to year, making changes based on the previous year each time is neither a good use of staff time nor helpful for students.

How can we manage expectations, or anything else, when receiving anonymised comments (which staff are frequently unable to reply to, engage with, or investigate)? What we need are more conversations – conversations that are currently superseded and hidden under the weight of student survey data. Senior management and Teaching and Learning departments drive student surveys and require staff to disseminate them. At the same time, students (despite many protestations against evaluations and NSS) are being encouraged to complete the surveys. Staff happen to be in the middle.

Dialogue is a two-way process, but it currently only flows in the one direction. Colleagues say the current anonymised student evaluations mean they cannot reply in real time or have open conversations with students. Their points, therefore, are either ignored or come to be deeply embedded in staff minds, niggling away at them for weeks, months, and often years – becoming for many, the last thought before falling asleep or the first when they wake up. This is not to say that dialogues never take place on such matters between staff and students, because they do. In fact from informal conversation with staff and students from various institutions, it is clear that these conversations are far more productive for all concerned and are pertinent to establishing trusting and positive relationships. When it comes to the personal nature of comments though, universities must do more to protect staff.

The Heart of the Problem: A Dialogue

Tracy Kirk, one of the authors of this post, specialises in children’s rights with a specific emphasis on adolescents. She points out the real parallels in the treatment of teenagers within education and the mass higher education landscape that follows school. Frustrated teenagers who are rarely given any meaningful opportunity to feedback to teachers, influence ‘choice’ within subject areas or generally have any real ‘voice’ are thrust into a higher education system which could not be more different. As university departments fall over themselves to garner the views of students, they are not increasing participation or communication, they are simply widening a problem: the lack of genuine understanding between students and academics. The ramification of this is an adverse reflect on staff-student relationships and the increasing consumer-driven nature of university education.

After all, how many students actually know what we do? If we aren’t teaching, surely we are preparing for teaching before our 3 month summer holiday? Perhaps, if we ensured that students knew exactly what we did, they’d understand a bit more – on a human level, and we’d see the beginning of attitude changes which, ultimately, would aid students as well as staff…

Upon entering Higher Education, though, opportunities to give feedback are new and it is leading to what some staff members have described as ‘trolling’. Only, this time we can’t just block or report an offender, we must continue to maintain the high standards we set ourselves despite personalised, often character annihilating comments from anonymous students.

During the UCU strikes, many students became aware of the issues and challenges facing HE staff – from precarious employment and hourly paid contracts, to funding and research time pressures – but according to some staff we have spoken to, there are two issues at play. The first is that senior management often do not wish for staff and students to discuss these issues at such an intimate and personal level. There should be no pressure on students regarding surveys (and rightly so), but perhaps students should be better informed about how these surveys are used. In criminology and sociology, for example, we frequently scrutinise surveys and statistics, but somehow NSS and module evaluations feel untouchable. Secondly, all of this is not actually the students’ problem and some may consider discussing these issues with them to be inappropriate. How do you navigate module evaluation surveys, your institution, and your relationships with students?

Over to you …

Learning and Teaching strategies and goals are all commendable, but they must be fair to both staff and students. Moving forward, there must be a discussion about the ways in which universities, academics, and students interact with each other if the high standards within Higher Education, and the positive mental health of academics and students, is to be improved. This blog post proposes to start a larger conversation about these issues.

With that said, it is time to pass it over to you, as someone who is involved in Higher Education. What do you think we could or should do to improve the current situation that we all find ourselves in with regards to issues raised in this post? We would love to hear from you as you finish work ahead of the summer ‘break’ (best of luck with your writing and research!) and so welcome your e-mails. We want to make academia the place we all know it should be, and your insight and thoughts will help us shape our plan for a future project. Should anyone like to send their thoughts or even offload without worry of being identified, you can contact us at: