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8:05am on Friday, 25th November, 2016:



Because of the effect that university league tables have on undergraduate recruitment, UK universities find themselves obliged to put resources to improving their ratings in the various metrics used by newspapers to calculate rankings. Non-rated areas of their operation get left by the wayside, but Vice Chancellors' hands are pretty well tied by the vagaries of newspaper editorial opinion so they do what they must.

One of the areas that's nototiously hard to quantify is "student satisfaction". Students fill in a national survey, saying how satisfied they are along a number of different dimensions. That this is unreliable is easy to see. For example, I'm an external examiner at Falmouth University and the amount of high-quality feedback their games students get is phenomenal — much more than I've seen anywhere else; unfortunately, the students don't know it's phenomenal, because for them it's normal and they have nothing mediocre to compare it against. Falmouth therefore doesn't get the credit it deserves for the amount of work put in by its academic staff in providing feedback.

Here at Essex University, analysis of the returns from the surveys indicates that we score low for pastoral care: put bluntly, students don't feel that they are being treated as individuals rather than as statistics. To remedy this, university high-ups have decreed that all students must have a personal tutor, who must maintain regular, personal contact with their tutees. Whether the students want such contact is not a factor.

So it is that in Computer Science we've been told when to send out emails to our tutees, and given a bunch of templates saying what information we should be conveying. We're not allowed to bulk-email them, we have to send them one by one to each of our tutees. They should be addressed to that tutee only, so they know they're getting a personalised message.

Well, that may be fine in theory, but in practice if every student gets a near-identical email from their tutor within a few days of each other, they're going to know it's all a set-up job. They'll see right through it. They're not stupid — they're at university! — and they won't therefore be fooled into thinking that they are indeed receiving personal attention from a caring member of the academic staff. It's almost certain to backfire. We may as well have just sent a single email to all of them at once, because at least then we wouldn't be giving them the impression that we were trying to trick them into thinking they were getting a meaningful, one-on-one communication.

I have 17 tutees. As a result, I had to send 17 individually-crafted emails yesterday. I have to send another batch early next week (as does every other tutor in the department).

If we're lucky, it's not going to reduce our student satisfaction ratings.

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