An analysis of the 2014 National Student Survey results has revealed that black or ethnic minority academics receive more negative feedback from their students. A study, published on the 7th January this year, discovered that the ethnicity of lecturers was a significant influence on the satisfaction levels of UK undergraduate students. The researchers, from the University of Reading, ascribe this outcome to “unconscious biases” held by respondents to the survey.

Adrian Bell and Chris Brooks, the report’s authors, compared National Student Survey results with staff data from the Higher Education Statistics Agency and established that for each 1% rise in the amount of academic staff in a department who identify as white, there was an equivalent 0.06% increase in the overall student satisfaction. This factor had the second most significant effect on the results as a whole when compared to all other variables and the report suggests that “overall students are happiest when taught by staff with the following characteristics: white, full professors, holding doctorates, and on fixed-term contracts”.

The most recent National Student Survey 2015 included 160 higher education institutions in total, with the overall satisfaction figures for all except 11 universities clustered between 92% and 78%. The most successful university in this year’s survey was Keele University scoring 95%, followed closely by the universities of Essex, East Anglia and Surrey, all scoring 92%. Such close figures demonstrate than an “unconscious bias” towards the ethnic make-up of staff could therefore sway league table results as well as individual academic performances, as other recorded staff information such as gender, age and teaching qualifications did not have a noticeable impact on student satisfaction. However, the overall number of staff in a department, their average length of service, and the proportion of them holding doctorates were found to have a positive effect on satisfaction figures.

Bell queried whether, despite the fact that the majority of UK universities use National Student Survey data to assess their academic capabilities, the results of the survey could be “really trusted” due to the presence of bias within the respondents. He acknowledged that aiming to eradicate bias completely would be unrealistic but suggested that universities need to be aware that satisfaction results may decrease as a result of moving towards an increasingly “diverse workforce,” however higher education institutions “have to accept that and be happy with that”.

This study from Reading University is the first example of such a report in the UK, but similar analysis has taken place in the US: revealing that black and ethnic minority lecturers were rated more severely by students on the Rate My Professor website. Students are far less likely to post praise about staff of Chinese, Korean or South-East Asian ancestry. The comments were focused on individual staff member’s accents and analysis into the site’s results has cast further doubt on the reliability of the data gathered.