Does student happiness undermine academic rigour?
For some time there has been a growing focus on student satisfaction. This obviously makes sense for all sorts of reasons, since university courses are there to be educate, support, inform and develop students – and their judgement on whether this is successful is clearly important. In the UK this is reflected in the National Student Survey, which tells students that ‘the NSS is your opportunity to give your opinions on what you liked about your time at your institution/course as well as things that you felt could have been improved.’. The results are published annually.
The issue of student satisfaction has also been considered in the context of tuition fees. As these have risen in some countries, the question has been asked whether this has created additional pressures on institutions to take steps to ensure student satisfaction. This might appear to be good and proper, but recently a US professor, Richard Arum, has asked whether one consequence might be that students increasingly ‘lack critical thinking, complex problem solving and writing skills, which are required for business success and thoughtful civic engagement,’ because faculty are too concerned with pleasing students and therefore hesitant about challenging them. He also wondered whether professors were inflating grades in order to get good student feedback and evaluations.
Before we get too carried away attributing this to tuition fees, it might be pointed out that student satisfaction is probably just as important to institutions that recruit students in free higher education systems, where retention and satisfaction also have a direct impact on institutional revenues. So perhaps the question might be put more broadly: have universities become reluctant to set and maintain standards? And perhaps, could this be because students are pushing them to adopt a softer approach?
As pedagogical methods change and as learning technology becomes more common, these are questions that need to be seriously addressed.