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UNSW’s plan to publicise course evaluation data raises alarm bells over surveillance

Staff have raised concerns the data will be used to rank academics and justify course cuts.

The National Tertiary Education Union (NTEU) is contesting the publication of course evaluation data at UNSW, which staff fear will be used to rank and surveil academics.

Union representatives took the issue to the Fair Work Commission on Monday, and have met with University management to dispute publishing raw data from student surveys.

On 11 May, UNSW released quantitative data from myExperience surveys — the UNSW equivalent of the University of Sydney’s Unit of Study surveys — on a dashboard visible to all academic staff.

A University spokesperson claimed “data presented in the dashboard is designed to protect the confidentiality of teaching survey data and individual staff.”

The spokesperson also said they “planned to make the data available to students,” which led to concerns among academic staff about its inappropriate use.

The NTEU is particularly concerned that it is still possible to identify individual teaching staff — in breach of the UNSW Enterprise Agreement.

“There is a risk that university management will use these course evaluations inappropriately as performance management tools or to set KPIs,” NTEU NSW Secretary Damien Cahill said. 

“If made public there is also a danger that league tables of academics could be created, based on surveys that have been shown to have inherent limitations, prejudices and biases.”

Surveillance fears

Staff are concerned that publication of the data could have consequences for job security, promotion and monitoring of performance, misplacing the blame for declining educational quality on individuals rather than structural problems in the sector.

Anna Hush, a casual academic at UNSW, said myExperience is “a tool of surveillance of staff, and a tool for management to control staff members.”

She is concerned they will “potentially use this data to justify cutting courses, cutting jobs,” and expressed resistance to it being made publicly available.

Another academic who spoke on condition of anonymity due to the University’s ever-present surveillance agreed that releasing the data publicly was “not about letting students see how they evaluated courses,” but was instead “about creating a culture of ranking and of surveillance of staff.”

Data subject to significant bias; impacts on most marginalised and precarious

The NTEU, and all staff Honi Soit spoke to, expressed concerns that student evaluations have a small sample size and are subject to significant gender and racial bias. This has been demonstrated in research

The anonymous academic explained that students leave “some very personal comments that are difficult to disentangle from the valuable ones.”

“I can get comments about the way that I speak and my accent … It happens overwhelmingly to people who might not have English as their first language, who are women, who are women of color — they get these often quite derogatory comments in their evaluations.”

Hush noted: “I often get students telling me to be more confident, which I find kind of funny. I think I’m quite a confident teacher and they might just want a man to be teaching.” 

“In my understanding of the research about student evaluations,” added Hush, “it really just shows or measures how much students enjoy particular subjects, which is very different from, say, teaching quality.”

When Honi reached out to UNSW for comment, they ignored questions about the biased nature of the data.

The release of myExperience data poses particular challenges for casualised staff. Hush referred to the data as a “double-edged sword” for casuals, who are torn between wanting to oppose the use of quantitative data while also having to rely on it to secure future work. 

The anonymous academic felt that an emphasis on student evaluations means the university fails “in [its] obligations towards training the next generation of educators [casual staff],” as “it leaves very little room for experimentation.”

Consumer model of education

Students have also raised concerns that an emphasis on student evaluations positions them as consumers in the business model of education. 

Luca Charlier, a UNSW education activist, said: “I’m not at uni to buy courses from management … It’s the sense of a collaborative staff and student learning community that I think is ultimately at stake.”

“I’ve never given staff less than a full rating,” he added. “No problem I’ve had with a course was worth risking staff precarity. Why not talk to them directly?”

“My engagement with staff and other students can’t be through centralised, transactional or quantified evaluation. My learning occurs through genuine discussion within those spaces and is strengthened through direct relationships with staff.”

Echoing a similar sentiment, the anonymous academic argued that the framing of students as consumers is “a real shame,” because, considering “the critical and radical nature of university learning, a consumer relationship is just so devoid of morals; it is so cold.” 

Hush suggested that rather than publicising course evaluation data, feedback should be expressed through open and direct dialogue between students and staff: “I think student feedback is so valuable. I learned a lot from teaching. I learn a lot from my students.”

“Teaching staff find a whole range of other ways to make space for that dialogue … and to incorporate student’s perspectives into courses, but I don’t think myExperience is the right tool for that.”

“The more we can gain feedback from students in ways that are outside the control and surveillance of management, the better,” she emphasised.

UNSW SRC endorses release of data

Not all students have stood with staff to resist the publication of course evaluation data. 

In May, the President of the UNSW Student Representative Council, Tom Kennedy, polled the Councillors and Officer Bearers on the issue of releasing myExperience data to students.

Kennedy indicated that he supported its release on the basis that students should be able to see their feedback and that it would increase engagement with the surveys. The vote fell along factional lines, with 11 votes for the release (Unity, NLS and unaligned) and 4 votes against (Grassroots, Socialist Alternative and NLS).  

The SRC vote appears to confirm fears expressed by Charlier, where “the model of students as consumers turns student activism into consumer advocacy.” 

“Appeals and concessions to management not only replace but undermine staff and student collaboration,” he said.

USyd SRC President Swapnik Sanagavarapu said: “These data are often biased against women and people of colour, and their publishing basically amounts to public humiliation of relevant staff. Not only does this do nothing to improve course outcomes, it is unreasonably cruel and punitive.”

“The USyd SRC stands with the NTEU and all staff at UNSW against the publishing of course evaluation data.”

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