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Use of surveys and survey data by the UEG

We previously wrote about the design and implementation of the Size and Shape survey. Fortunately, the Senate has ruled that consultation on this crucial programme is not up to the required standard -- partly because the UEG tried to present “findings” from a poorly designed survey before it had had time to digest the data -- and postponed any decision about the size and shape of our university. A report has now been published; it admits that t “this [...] did not take the form of a detailed academic analysis”. The report is a university-wide summary of the school summaries of the responses in the focus groups. Presumably, the results of the university-wide survey have also been used, but it is not clear how. The discussions at School meetings were ignored, although introduced as part of the engagement process. The report has no strong conclusions on either shape or size. This is more pretend-to-engage than actual engagement.

This was not the first faux-pas with survey data by the UEG. Last year, there was a survey on cost-cutting ideas. Although confidential, many colleagues reported that they had suggested in the survey to cut the salaries of senior management -- and some added that they had recommended a reduction in the number of senior managers. (The number of managerial and non-academic professional staff has grown rapidly at British universities.) Unfortunately, these suggestions are not found in the survey report. An internal report is not an academic paper, but selective reporting is unethical -- it would get your paper rejected by any decent journal -- or retracted if you initially hide this from the referees.

There are similar issues with student surveys. Summarizing the October 2020 Student Pulse Survey, the VC wrote that students are telling us in droves that they are desperate to learn together and experience even just a few hours of face-to-face teaching this term. The Chair of Council specified “droves” to be 70%. The survey itself is not available and a report cannot be found. It is not clear whether the students were asked a motherhood and apple pie question -- “would you like to return to face-to-face teaching” -- a qualified one -- “would like to return to face-to-face teaching when it is safe to do so” -- or a trade-off -- “would you like to return to face-to-face teaching even though it means a higher risk of infection”. UEG used the dubious results of the student survey to pressure faculty to teach face-to-face; a dangerous and irresponsible injunction.

The 2021 Staff Pulse Survey is another example. The UCU did not endorse this survey because of bad experiences with previous ones. Our forebodings were not wrong. Most people will have seen a selective snapshot of the results. Somewhat hidden on the web are fuller results with single cross-tabulations. This reveals, for example, that 24% of colleagues felt bullied in the last year, ranging from 12% in the School of Psychology to 42% in IT Services. 24% of all colleagues were bullied, but only 19% of heterosexual ones; homosexual and bisexual colleagues take the brunt of the bullying. 19% of males felt bullied and 21% of females, but the majority of the other-gendered were bullied. Bullying and harassment are endemic at Sussex but the perpetrators -- managers -- are rarely if ever held accountable let alone dismissed.

The published report lacks double cross-tabulations, so that we cannot know whether bullying of our LGBQT+ colleagues is concentrated in part of the university or widespread.

Double and triple cross-tabulations imply small cell sizes that are a threat to confidentiality. Therefore, it would be good if different stakeholders (campus unions, senate) could nominate individuals who are sworn to confidentiality but have access to all the data. Such individuals could reassure us that the conclusions by the UEG are indeed supported by the data.

There are other striking results in the Pulse Survey. White English staff feel most at ease at the University, people from elsewhere or with different complexions do not. This underlines our recent open letter about racism. The UEG is all talk with no action.

Only 43% of colleagues feel it is safe to speak up or challenge the way things are done. We are supposed to teach our students to think critically. That is one of the key things that sets a university apart from other institutions. But while the ability of our faculty to think critically is not in doubt, they do not dare speak their mind.

You would think that results like this would set alarm bells ringing and heads rolling. You would be mistaken. The UEG has published a university-wide action plan in response to the survey. It contains three elements:

  1. Increase the visibility and profile of UEG across the institution;

  2. Increase transparency of UEG decision-making; and

  3. Address reports of bullying and harassment.

Numbers 1 and 2 are surprising. The survey did not ask about this. The survey only asked about the effectiveness of UEG leadership (a single question is not how you would want to measure leadership effectiveness), not whether a lack of visibility and transparency negatively affected their effectiveness. Many colleagues do not like the direction the UEG is trying to take the University and thus appreciate their ineffectiveness.

Number 3 is worse. Bullying and harassment is a problem. The UEG plans to increase reporting of the problem, but has no plans to reduce the problem itself.

Work load or discrimination, also identified in the pulse survey as problematic, are not on the UEG agenda.

UEG promised more transparency in decision-making. Perhaps it could make a start with how the Pulse Survey maps to the Action Plan.

The use of survey data by the UEG is not just an insult to all those colleagues who take great care in their empirical work. The UEG frequently cite dubious statistics to undercut the arguments by Union and student representatives.

That practice has to end.


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