x Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 21 July 2017

Why staff ratings are vital for UAE's universities

Student and peer assessments of staff is becoming increasingly important to universities' efforts to improve, academics believe.

DUBAI // Student and peer assessments of staff is becoming increasingly important to universities' efforts to improve, academics believe.

And now, some of the country's struggling universities are turning to such assessments in an effort to revive their fortunes.

Ittihad University in Ras Al Khaimah was put on probation by the Ministry of Higher Education in 2011 after the Commission for Academic Accreditation found "serious problems" with its teaching, curricula and management.

Now a senior academic at the university is studying other universities in the hope of helping it make the changes needed to satisfy the ministry's Commission for Academic Accreditation.

Until it does, the university is barred from recruiting new students and so faces an extremely uncertain future.

Dr Safaa Abdallah Hassan Eissa, the dean of education, has compared quality control procedures at 10 institutions in Sharjah, Abu Dhabi, Ajman and RAK, and presented her findings last month at the Dubai international conference on higher education at Knowledge Village.

The universities she studied took a range of approaches. Some focused on test results, while others used questionnaires to get feedback from staff and students.

The idea of peer-assessment has not gone down well with all staff at Ittihad, admits Dr Eissa, "but the institutions I looked at did this a lot".

Ajman's Gulf Medical University (GMU), had used peer and self-assessment for more than a decade. "The student is the one person who sees the teacher in the classroom," said Dr Gita Ashok Raj, its provost.

"They can see a teacher as someone who can develop a curriculum, a syllabus, develop their research work. My peer would know if I'm a good practitioner and these are components a student can't see."

As provost, Dr Raj said knowing staff's strengths and areas of expertise helps her delegate. "I team them with people who they can learn from," she said.

While it is easy for teachers to know how their students are doing, it is not so obvious what students think of their teachers. For that reason, GMU students anonymously appraise all their teachers.

That is particularly useful for courses taught by multiple teachers, in which it may not be immediately apparent where the credit lies for a student's good grades - or the blame for her bad ones.

Not all staff welcomed the appraisals when they were introduced in 2003. "Those from traditional backgrounds found it hard to understand," said Dr Raj.

"We explained it was only the perception of the student as to how they believed the teacher had helped them learn."

That, however, has changed. "Now, the staff look forward to the results. It's done in a very non-threatening way."

Students' evaluations are just one of many factors on which staff are judged. "If there are concerns about a teacher, we wait for the students' evaluation before we hand it over to the teacher to discuss this."

When teachers are judged harshly by their students, the task is to help them improve. "If a teacher is not well received it's a concern. The students must benefit."

Middlesex University Dubai also uses assessments to improve quality across the board. As well as conducting student surveys, student representatives engage with academic staff to discuss areas for improvement. "Student representatives will raise issues with any aspect of their studies, particularly when they want more out of teaching and feedback," said Prof Raed Awamleh, executive director of the campus.

For Ittihad, Dr Eissa is hopeful that the exercise will bear fruit, and help the university lift itself out of probation. "Comparing with other institutions has shown us we are now on the right track," she said. "We are now trying to modify courses according to that quality framework of the CAA."