Cooking the Books, or How We Stopped Mithering and Jumped Up the League Table

As followers of this blog will know, I have been at university since 2010. I'm doing a degree in English. I didn't plan on doing one, but at the beginning of that year I walked out on my job, burned out after 15 years and pissed off with the persecution I was receiving from my manager because I didn't know how to kiss ass like some of the others. I had to do something or keep signing on indefinitely, there being very few jobs around at the time for 44 year old epileptics with left wing sympathies, a bad disciplinary record and no reference. So I chose university. It wasn't signing on or a job, after all; I got money for it too.

I'm coming to the end of my degree soon. I have six or seven months to put in and then I can retire from Academia. But before I leave I'm obliged, apparently, to fill in something called the National Student Survey. It's a nationwide customer satisfaction survey of higher education which (I think) somebody or other consults when drawing up the university league tables for the following year. "You must do this," two lecturers told us, while giving separate presentations on the subject. "If you don't we will call you at home and write you letters."

Which is fair enough. It isn't too hard to fob off lecturers, ignore phone calls and tear up letters. But telling us, as they did, that it is in our interest to portray the university in a positive light in the survey isn't fair enough.When I heard this I almost choked; although nobody else in either room where I heard it seemed to mind one way or the other. The argument of the two English professors who made this outrageous statement was that if we made the uni look good, our degree would be more respectable and we would all get better jobs. So, blackmailing impressionable people is acceptable now in the sterling-driven world of education?

The real reason these men want us to gloss over the problems at my university is so that we can bump it out of the relegation zone in the academic league table; and probably give their careers more weight so that they'll make it onto the shortlist the next time they apply for a job somewhere. And the irony is, there's nothing much wrong with the English Department, although for me there weren't enough options and the syllabus was much too narrow. The lecturers themselves are pretty damn good (with one obvious poetasting exception).

But there are problems; big problems. And if we don't bring them to the attention of the people who can do something about it, kids coming in paying twice as much as we did (and then some) for the same education are going to have to deal with the same things, and by then the problems will have become more entrenched.

Why didn't I raise any of the issues I obviously have internally, you might ask. I did. With person after person, at level after level. I used the complaints procedure. I even used the internal student questionnaire. And you know what? I didn't get a single answer, from anyone, all year. The only time I've ever even seen the Vice Chancellor, who I wrote to more than once about the university's close relationship with China, is when he's escorting business people around the building telling them what a fabulous student experience they provide.

The mantra at my university is, "Keep your mouth shut and get a good degree." I was advised to do that in the first year by an American Literature professor (I couldn't) and I've heard it since from student after student. What an appalling legacy to hand down to the next generation of consumers. Or maybe it's a good one and I've got the wrong end of the stick completely. I come from another time, after all; I was raised by a person who believed that you should stand up to power and live for more than two holidays a year and that next big promotion.

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