The False Metric of the NSS: The Decline of Ethics in HE (Research in Progress Seminar)


Aftab Dean and Michael Cassop Thompson gave colleagues a two hander on the National Student Survey (NSS) and the integrity of Higher Education. My take on this is as follows:

  • The NSS is fundamentally flawed. It has not thought through the nature of the student experience and runs the danger of the leading learning and teaching into teleopathy- broadly the pursuit of inappropriate ends (tick box!).
  • The key issue that students focus on is the learning experience both as something worthwhile in itself and as having utility, linking into the skills and attributes of employability.

nss_logo_blackAftab contrasted the dry metrics of the NSS with the focus on experience which is about the student teacher relationship and making learning come alive. One is fixed in a consumer model, and a narrow view of accountability, the other is focused on the idea of a learning community where student and teacher are mutually responsible for learning.

Michael Cassop Thompson then took us into territory of what that learning might look like. I took two things from that:

  • What makes learning really interesting is its spontaneous nature. The mark of that is that both student and lecturer end up being surprised. Oakshott (1962) captures this view when he argues that authentic HE is about the adventure of an ‘unrehearsed critical conversation’- one that builds narrative and engagement with many different narratives.
  • In contrast to that is a narrative of control, based in the albeit honest attempt to provide equality in teaching. Ironically this is about quality In fact the ‘control’ provides the opposite of quality. Providing everyone with power points before the lecture, for instance, simply leads to isomorphism and to a didactic view of pedagogy which precisely discourages any experience of mutuality in learning and leaves no room for surprise.

For me this leaves several questions:

First, why is there no genuine dialogue going on between HE management, quality control dialogueand teachers about these different narratives? Underlying the quality control approach is something about contract, and that is good- shared expectation enables the practice of accountability.  Underlying the adventure approach is something about the calling of Higher Education, and that is based in covenant not contract, commitment to core purpose- and I think we can say that is good too. So why no adventure of critical conversation in our own backyard? Perhaps that conversation might help us to practice integrity in how we handle the NSS.

Second, teleopathy is nothing new. It is right at the heart of all the major governance failures in the last half century and before. Moore (2012) writes about governance practice which crowds out the practice of the virtues. Hence, this is fundamentally an issue about the integrity of governance in Higher Education. So how are we going to get that right?

Third, part of getting the governance right involves a focus on responsibility. Do universities reflect on their core purpose and give an account of how their core purposes inform their practice? Can we give an account, for instance, of how the attributes and skills of employability relate to the attributes and skills of learning? Can we give an account of how to develop pedagogy such that these attributes and skills are practised, and that students and staff are systematically aware of what they are practising and what its worth is? There needs to be dialogue between staff and staff, and students and staff around theory (philosophy), values and practice.

higher education.jpgPrecisely the same questions hover around the ‘adventure’ of Higher Education. The dialogue at the heart of that is risky, because it involves controlled uncertainty. But the practice of narrative involves the owning of responsibility for our thoughts and feelings (the responsibility of authorship, see Ricoeur 2000), and the practice of dialogue involves giving and receiving an account, accountability. The practice of that responsibility brings together the practice of intellectual, moral, interpersonal, psychological and practical virtues.  Now if that lot isn’t of some use to employers I don’t know what is.

For details of Aftab Deans latest exploits see this website (Aftab most recently presented at the 3rd session, Managing in Learning and Teaching, on 25th February). Watch this space for further development around this theme in the next few months.

Prof Simon Robinson, Director of the Centre for Governance, Leadership and Global Responsibility


Moore (2012) ‘The Virtue of Governance, the Governance of Virtue’, Business Ethics Quarterly, Vol 22, 02, 293-318.

Oakshott (1962) Rationalism in Politics and Other Essays (London: Methuen). P.

Ricoeur (2000) The Concept of Responsibility: An Essay in Semantic Analysis in The Just, trans. Pellauer, D. (Chicago: The University of Chicago Press).


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