by Caitlin Bailey
Students will soon be able to see how other students have rated UNSW courses, with data from the anonymous myExperience course surveys to be publicly released. UNSW successfully appealed a Fair Work Commission (FWC) case against the National Tertiary Education Union (NTEU) for their release earlier in the week.
The UNSW SRC has previously expressed support for the release of the data on the basis that students can see that their feedback has been recognised by the University.
Early last year, the NTEU took UNSW management to the Fair Work Commission (FWC), arguing that a plan to make myExperience survey data available to students would be in breach of the UNSW enterprise agreement, which protects individual teaching staff from being identified.
The NTEU won the case, but in a decision on Monday, the ruling was overturned with a full bench of the FWC deciding that it would not be possible to identify staff using the data that the University was looking to release.
“We accept that in some cases a person can be identified without being named. If a certain attribute is widely associated with a particular person, a reference to that attribute could identify the person, even though the person’s name might not be used,” the judgement said. “But the proposed form of the data to be published simply does not do this. No staff are identified.”
UNSW management maintains that myExperience surveys provide students with a valuable opportunity to make comments and suggestions on courses and teachers to improve their experience at the University.
Students need to “…see that their voice is being heard…”, a UNSW spokesperson said last year. “The student voice is something that often isn’t heard loudly enough in universities.”
The University has assured students and academic staff that precautions will be taken to protect academic staff from being identified. Comments from the surveys will not be published and data will only be published for courses with multiple teachers.
The NTEU NSW Secretary Damien Cahill said that the decision was “very disappointing” and that it would still be possible to identify teachers, especially if there are a small number of them teaching a particular course.
Dr Cahill has previously warned against releasing course evaluation data on the basis that it could influence whether academic staff are hired, fired or given promotions.
“There is a risk that university management will use these course evaluations inappropriately as performance management tools or to set KPIs,” Dr Cahill said.
Dr Cahill has also drawn attention to the “abundance of scholarship that show they are subject to a whole range of biases,” which distort course evaluation data and make it a poor reflection of course and teaching quality.
Numerous studies have found that course evaluation data is heavily influenced by factors, such as the teacher’s gender, ethnicity, or sexuality, rather than the quality of the course and teachers.
A paper published in January this year by La Trobe University Lecturer Troy Heffernan, analysing over 1 million student evaluations, found that results are highly prejudiced against female academics and people of colour. While subjects taught by white, male teachers aged approximately 35 to 50, who students believe to be heterosexual, consistently receive the highest overall satisfaction results.
These results are frequently identified as a key reason for the underrepresentation of female professors and females in university leadership roles.
Writing in Campus Morning Mail, former UNSW Deputy Vice-Chancellor said: “Our community, is no different from any other community, we are not free of biases. But discussing all this openly helps us to be alert to biases and context when interpreting student feedback.”
“At stake here is the proper use to which student course evaluation surveys should be put,” Dr Cahill said. “The NTEU believes student surveys can be useful for pedagogical development, however their well-documented limitations must be recognised.”
The NTEU is planning to raise the issue during enterprise bargaining, which is due to take place later this year.