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Size and Shape survey

The University has grown fond of surveying staff and faculty. Unfortunately, they are not as fond of sharing the results. Typically, we only get to see fragments of the data and summaries of the results. The University does not feel compelled to meet the standards of reporting survey results that are common in academic journals, a topic that will be discussed in a future blog.

The design of the surveys do not always pass muster either. Let us have a look at the latest University survey, on the Size and Shape programme.

Q1. Are you in agreement with the academic vision of the University? If not, why not?

The main problem with this question is that it is not clear what the “academic vision of the University” is. Does this refer to the official version, that many people will not have had the opportunity to read, and which is neither linked nor described in the survey? Some people may express their (dis)agreement with the REF environment statements instead. Or are people invited to comment on the vision implied in the actions of the University leadership?

People who have read the strategic plan may note that it is so vague, it could be anyone’s strategic plan. It is easily delivered, which may be the point.

Q2. What would a successful University of Sussex look like for you?

A university that is successful for me would double my salary, halve my teaching load, and give me 6 PhD students and 2 post-docs. A university that is successful to me would do none of these things, instead give students a solid education, do fascinating research, and be a great place to work and study. Everyone knows the answer to this, it is not worth asking

Q3. Drawing on your own experience from within and outside the University, what do you think works well in terms of delivering high quality and proactive services?

This question is too vague to get your head around. What services are delivered by whom to whom? Could this refer to the Library and IT? Is it the refereeing we do for journals? Is it how we serve our students? Is it the career advice we get from HR?

Q4. How do we ensure that education at Sussex remains relevant both in terms of the local and global contexts?

Q5. How do we ensure our educational offer is both attractive to students and financially viable?

Q4 and Q5 are primarily questions to our students and their prospective employers. In Q4, why do we not want to be relevant in a national context?

I had to read Q5 multiple times to understand what it is about. It is not about the fees that we should charge—higher education is price-regulated. It is not about student numbers—the question implies a trade-off, but more attractive programmes have more students and so raise more income. By elimination, Q5 is about how we could reduce the cost of our teaching without the students walking away.

Survey respondents rarely think long and hard about either question or answer. In our school, we were asked to respond on Padlet, seeing all 10 questions at the same time and reading our colleagues’ answers while formulating our own. That is not conducive to deep thought.

Q6. What are the principles that should guide our planning of an educational offer?

This is another poorly worded question. Does “principles” refer to “planning” or “educational offer”? Planning principles are widely agreed but rarely adhered to. The principles of education are more controversial. But would we not rather discuss what and how we teach? When I compare my primary education with that of my kids, I notice large differences, mostly for the better, in pedagogy. The difference between how I teach and how I was taught at university is much smaller. Would that not be a worthier topic of inquiry?

Q7. How should Sussex meet the challenges of societal expectations with respect to the value of research, scholarship and impact?

Every respondent would have a different view of these “challenges”. Are we public servants, do we hold up a mirror to society, or are we an irritant to the powers that be? What are these “societal expectations”? And whose expectations? Are these the expectations of the current government? Prospective employers of our students? Their parents?

Not having asked about the “societal expectations” that the respondents have in mind, answers to the question how to meet these (if that is what we want to domaybe our job is to change expectations) are meaningless.

Q8. In what ways can we appropriately recognise the value of research, scholarship and impact across the University?

Like Q7, the answers to Q8 cannot be interpreted without first asking about the value of research, scholarship and impact, and their relative importance.

I find the word “scholarship” confusing. Presumably it refers to education, so that Q8 is about the three core missions of the University. However, “teaching and scholarship” contracts suggest that the scholarship is not about teaching. And we associate the word “scholar” more typically with faculty than with students.

Ambiguous questions lead to ambiguous answers. Perhaps that is the point. Ambiguous answers can be interpreted at will.

Q9. The current academic structure is a mix of small and large schools contained within informal clusters, with some schools being large enough to be a cluster on their own. Informal clusters may in some cases already have shared PS staff.

· Should schools move towards forming faculties? If so, what do you see are the advantages to faculties, or clusters?

· What might be the disadvantages of faculties, or clusters?

Q9 is a leading question. The choice is between the status quo and fewer, larger schools. More, smaller schools are not on the table.

Q10. There are differential costs to running academic units (faculties, schools, departments) within Sussex. Because of this, we adopt a financial model that allows for cross subsidy. Put simply, some academic units financially support others that are not financially sustainable. What do you think are the factors we should consider in setting limits to cross subsidy?

Most respondents have little knowledge of the University’s finances and the flows of funds between and within schools. The answers to Q10 are therefore largely uninformed. This question is a fig leaf. The University leadership can claim that staff and faculty have been consulted and support its approach to cross-subsidies.

In short, this survey is a neat example of how-not-to. Using its advisory board on surveys, the University should move both its surveys and its use of survey results to an acceptable academic standard. After all, important decisions are made, or at least justified, on the basis of these surveys.

Photo credit: Eric


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