As he closed the books on the 2014 school year, LSE Director Craig Calhoun had many things to celebrate. And one pointed regret.
The School continued to rank among the best in the world in the social sciences; The Times and Sunday Times Good University Guide had named LSE its University of the Year for Graduate Employment; the campus had inaugurated new buildings and academic institutes.
But none of those things seemed to take centre stage in the Director’s annual report. Instead, what stood out was a focus on one of the School’s shortcomings. In the results of the latest National Student Survey, LSE’s student satisfaction score had tumbled.
“This is obviously disappointing,” Calhoun wrote in the report’s opening pages. “The School has a duty to students to improve in those areas where we scored poorly.”
His review ended with a vow to action: “We are working now to effect a real step change.”
Since then, LSE’s flagging satisfaction scores have only worsened. Between 2014 and 2018, LSE’s “overall satisfaction” score has dipped from 81% to 71%, according to historical results of the National Student Survey, which is completed by final-year undergraduates across the UK. Although satisfaction scores at a number of top universities have declined since around 2011, LSE’s latest outcome, in 2018, is still well below results at peer institutions such as UCL, which scored 80%, or Imperial, which scored 84%.
LSE has invested heavily to boost student satisfaction. In 2014, LSE opened the Saw Swee Hock Student Centre, a building that “clearly puts student life at the centre of the campus,” wrote Calhoun in the 2014 report. Shortly thereafter it opened LSE Life, a dedicated student hub inside the library that hosts regular events, from walking tours of London to exam prep sessions.
Dr Judith Shapiro, a Senior Lecturer in Practice who earned her PhD in economics here, said that LSE has mounted a shift in recent years towards a clearer focus on undergraduate instruction.
“LSE was founded to ‘know the causes of things’ and also to make the world a better place,” she said. “So it is a critical new understanding that making the world a better place includes actually doing small things, putting your feather on the scales of history and not just the mighty Beveridge tome. And it means that we do it through the legacy of our students.”
James Putzel, LSE Professor of Development Studies and a Programme Director, also suggested that the School aimed to make a transition. “The School was very concerned to drop down in the NUS [sic] Survey and is instituting a huge number of measures to improve student satisfaction,” he said.
But so far the school’s efforts have yet to dispel the perception that LSE is more attuned to the needs of its researchers and faculty than its students, a critique that has long dogged the school’s reputation.
Students suggest that LSE has come to be known – fairly or otherwise – for being especially good at kick-starting or accelerating professional careers, especially in business or finance, and that this attracts students who may prioritise achievement above community.
“There is a certain kind of student who comes to LSE,” said a postgraduate studying political theory in LSE’s class of 2019, who preferred not to be named. “They tend to be more career-focused. There’s less emphasis on community and making friends.”
Others point to the School’s small, urban campus and often crowded facilities as a source of frustration. “I’m happy with my professors and the academics,” said Jun, a South Korean postgraduate student in the Environmental Economics and Climate Change master’s programme. But the cramped facilities, he said, made his view of the university as a whole somewhat less positive.
It can sometimes seem as though LSE is not aware of its student satisfaction problem, but recent annual reports suggest it has been a top concern. In the school’s LSE Strategy 2020, teaching quality, with a view to improving the student experience, was at the top of a 10-point plan. “A crucial priority is to ensure that our students have the benefit of great teaching and a rewarding educational experience,” wrote Calhoun. “We are at work on this in all we do … Outstanding education must be as central to LSE as brilliant research and exciting public engagement.”
But if there’s any indication that current Director Minouche’s vow to reverse the low satisfaction numbers is a key priority, it isn’t immediately clear. At this week’s launch of the LSE Strategy 2030, Shafik and LSE’s head of Corporate Marketing Irene Jordan defended the omission of the phrases “student experience” and “student satisfaction” in the brochure or on the strategy’s website. (A more comprehensive document featuring the whole strategy, which did reference the student experience, was later uploaded.)
Some have expressed concern that fixation on narrow measures of student satisfaction could actually cloud a broader understanding to the student experience.
“The only reason we don’t mention it every day is that we want to be motivated to improve the actual student experience,” said Dr Shapiro, speaking about her experiences in the Economics department.
At least one top polling provider, the Complete University Guide, warns in its methodology that, because of factors such as prior expectations, student satisfaction does not necessarily imply quality education.
Professor Putzel also suggested that presuppositions play a role. “As for attitudes of undergraduates, I suspect that expectations have been greatly ratcheted up in recent years and [that] as student fees rise and philosophies of treating students as ‘customers’ proliferate, there are new and different thresholds of student satisfaction,” he said.
The theme of expectations management, commonplace among LSE’s most senior faculty members, is not a new one. In any case, it remains to be seen whether Director Shafik will enjoy more success than her predecessor in lifting students’ perceptions of their experience.