Quantifying ‘satisfaction’ is neither possible, nor desirable

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Illustration: Dillon Yeh

Once again, St Andrews has come out (almost) on top in the latest university guides – coming third overall in both The Times and The Guardian’s respective versions, and fifth in The Complete University Guide’s online alternative. A category in which we are consistently high performers is student satisfaction – but what does this actually mean? For whatever reason, such statistics of a given university are often a considerable factor in a student’s decision to attend. Committing three plus years to a place in which a student hopes to construct some semblance of social and educational foundation for adult life is a monumental decision, and in an increasingly consumerist and risk-averse society, a prospective student is essentially a punter looking for a guaranteed good time.

Herein lies the first issue. Guaranteeing a good time to every individual who happens to find themselves inexplicably lost on one of St Andrews’ three main streets in but a preposterous red gown is effectively impossible. Respective notions of ‘the ideal’ are almost infinitely variable from one person to the next; one person’s version of a ‘good time’ may be to another akin to being condemned to eat only the salad pots from McDonalds for breakfast, lunch and dinner for the rest of their miserable life. Some want total seclusion and the ability to be entirely removed from any typical student shenanigans, whereas others are all about that party life. Most are somewhere more moderate on the scale; but catering to any particular preference is difficult, as our constantly altering human condition predisposes us to be changeable – for example, we are hopefully not the same person at any point during our lives as we are during our 9am lectures.

Furthermore, can we even trust these surveys when those undertaking them are often bribed to do so with the promise of free vouchers? Who is to say that they are completing the surveys authentically? The outcomes of these surveys depend on students retaining their integrity and objectivity in giving responses which accurately reflect the ‘true’ nature of things. Provided that they are even taking the surveys seriously, it’s undeniable that most of us are somewhat inclined towards bias. It’s difficult to be objective about something which we are emotionally invested in or loyal to, and this emotional investment and loyalty is hopefully something a university endeavours to foster within its students. There is also the issue of context – the educational experience of students can vary radically from one department to the next, and even within those departments there are innumerable differing factors which make up an individual’s experience. A confident and adaptable History student’s overall experience, for example, is not comparable to that of a Biology student who struggles socially, and even then, their separate experiences cannot necessarily be indicative as to the experience two similar prospective students will have at university.

Another question that ought to be raised is this: what actually is ‘satisfaction’? As a word it is vague and insipid, sharing a trouser leg with the equally non-committal ‘contentment’. It suggests that there is some higher human condition and moreover with a subtlety which implies that it is actually achievable. Satisfaction is relative to the individual and also it is inconsistent – anyone who has unwisely overestimated their capacity to withstand the force of several Pablos will know that good feelings come and go with unsettling rapidity, irrespective of our will and desire.

The first three weeks of university alone are proof enough of life’s spectrum of experiences, from the charming to the truly horrendous, which can come along and smack you in the face at any moment. The crushing realisation that the people you met in Freshers Week who you assumed would be your friends forever were really just using you for your multi-pack of IKEA beakers. The delight of your first Dervish mouthful, the unprecedented horror as, mere moments later, you watch your cheesy chips fall to the ground; the emotional turmoil which ensues.

Student satisfaction, if we are to take as being the term for the general welfare of the student body as a collective, is clearly important; nobody is going to contest the idea that in order to be successful and productive at university, students need to feel at the very least that they are being respected, well-educated and that they have some port of call if things go disastrously wrong. However, I dispute the idea that to be satisfied is the most important goal; to be challenged, impassioned, have previous beliefs completely upturned and to experience the occasional moment of despair surely offers more construction than any mediocre ‘satisfaction’ possibly could. If university aims to prepare us for life, then perhaps inspiring at least a little dissatisfaction is the way forward.

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