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Stress, distress, disorder and coping: the impact of anonymous student evaluation of teaching on the health of higher education teachers Stress, distress, disorder and coping: the impact of anonymous student evaluation of teaching on the health of higher education teachers

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Anonymous student evaluation of teaching (SET) is a universal practice in higher education. We conducted a mixed-methods approach to investigate the nature and impact of anonymous SET commentary in the Australian higher education sector. Respondents shared a range of detailed SET exemplars, which revealed the extent of hurtful, defamatory and abusive commentary made by students. This paper reports the self-perceived impact of these on the health and wellbeing of academics. The majority of respondents reported that anonymous narrative comments contributed to workplace stress. There were no significant differences for gender. Younger academics were more likely to report the process of SET as stressful. Four themes were identified from the narrative responses: stress, distress, disorder and coping. These themes highlight the mental distress and impacts on well-being from repeated exposure to uncivil commentary made in SET by students. This distress was exacerbated by the failure of many employing universities to take substantial action to remedy or limit exposure to uncivil behaviour. The current system of anonymous SET has little validity and instead may operate as a vehicle for unfettered incivility directed towards teaching staff. The mental health impacts are significant for some and may impact the recruitment, retention and renewal of academic teaching staff into the future.
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1
This is an Accepted Manuscript (peer-reviewed) version of the following article:
Lakeman, R, Coutts, RA, Hutchinson, M, Massey, D, Nasrawi, D, Fielden, J & Lee, M 2022, 'Stress, distress, disorder and coping: the impact of anonymous student
evaluation of teaching on the health of higher education teachers', Assessment and Evaluation in Higher Education. https://doi.org/10.1080/02602938.2022.2060936.
It is deposited under the terms of the Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives License , which permits non-commercial re-use, distribution, and
reproduction in any medium, provided the original work is properly cited, and is not altered, transformed, or built upon in any way
Stress, Distress, Disorder and Coping: The Impact of Anonymous Student Evaluation
of Teaching on the Health of Higher Education Teachers in Australia
2
This is an Accepted Manuscript (peer-reviewed) version of the following article:
Lakeman, R, Coutts, RA, Hutchinson, M, Massey, D, Nasrawi, D, Fielden, J & Lee, M 2022, 'Stress, distress, disorder and coping: the impact of anonymous student
evaluation of teaching on the health of higher education teachers', Assessment and Evaluation in Higher Education. https://doi.org/10.1080/02602938.2022.2060936.
It is deposited under the terms of the Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives License , which permits non-commercial re-use, distribution, and
reproduction in any medium, provided the original work is properly cited, and is not altered, transformed, or built upon in any way
Abstract
Anonymous student evaluation of teaching (SET) is a universal practice in higher
education. We conducted a mixed-methods approach to investigate the nature and impact
of anonymous SET commentary in the Australian higher education sector. Respondents
shared a vast array of detailed SET exemplars. These revealed the extent of hurtful,
defamatory and abusive commentary made by students. This paper reports on the impact of
this commentary on the health and wellbeing of academics. The majority of respondents
attributed workplace stress to receiving anonymous SET commentary, with no significant
differences for gender and younger academics more likely to report stress. Four themes
were identified from the qualitative responses: stress, distress, disorder, and coping. These
themes highlight the palpable mental distress stemming from repeated exposure to uncivil
commentary made in SET by students. This distress was exacerbated by the failure of
employing universities to take any substantial action to remedy or limit these uncivil
attacks. It is clear that the current system of anonymous SET has little validity, and instead,
may operate as a vehicle for unfettered incivility directed towards teaching staff.
Keywords: anonymous student feedback; university; academia; mental health
3
This is an Accepted Manuscript (peer-reviewed) version of the following article:
Lakeman, R, Coutts, RA, Hutchinson, M, Massey, D, Nasrawi, D, Fielden, J & Lee, M 2022, 'Stress, distress, disorder and coping: the impact of anonymous student
evaluation of teaching on the health of higher education teachers', Assessment and Evaluation in Higher Education. https://doi.org/10.1080/02602938.2022.2060936.
It is deposited under the terms of the Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives License , which permits non-commercial re-use, distribution, and
reproduction in any medium, provided the original work is properly cited, and is not altered, transformed, or built upon in any way
Stress, Distress, Disorder and Coping: The Impact of Anonymous Student Evaluation
of Teaching on the Health of Higher Education Teachers in Australia
Occupational stress in University academics in Australia has been found to be associated
with high workloads, casualisation of the workforce, insecure tenure, aspects of managerialism
which have come to pervade the higher education sector, and the transition from professional
practice to the academy (Lee et al. 2022). One now ubiquitous practice which can impact on
tenure, promotion and is reflective of trends in managerialism, is anonymous student evaluation
of teaching (SET). It is now a universal experience and expectation of higher education in
Australia that before the end of every teaching term students have the opportunity to rate both
courses or units of study and their teachers as well as provide anonymous comments. Surveys of
students suggest that up to 30% of evaluations contain purposefully false or misleading
information (Clayson and Haley 2011), although examination of a large sample of comments
from one Australian University in 2010 found only a small minority were deemed abusive or
unprofessional (Tucker 2014). However, a more recent survey of Australian academic staff
found a majority of respondents had received insulting, offensive, accusatory and potentially
defamatory anonymous narrative feedback at some time (Lakeman et al. 2022). This study
explores the perceived, or reported impacts of receiving such comments on health and wellbeing.
Background
From its conception SET had primarily formative functions to improve teaching quality
and was largely administered face-to-face at the end of classes. However, in recent years SET
has increasingly become used to provide input for appraisal exercises and to demonstrate
institutional accountability (Tucker 2014). These different purposes are fraught with tension and
there is little agreement that SET, as it is commonly operationalised, is valid for any of these
4
This is an Accepted Manuscript (peer-reviewed) version of the following article:
Lakeman, R, Coutts, RA, Hutchinson, M, Massey, D, Nasrawi, D, Fielden, J & Lee, M 2022, 'Stress, distress, disorder and coping: the impact of anonymous student
evaluation of teaching on the health of higher education teachers', Assessment and Evaluation in Higher Education. https://doi.org/10.1080/02602938.2022.2060936.
It is deposited under the terms of the Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives License , which permits non-commercial re-use, distribution, and
reproduction in any medium, provided the original work is properly cited, and is not altered, transformed, or built upon in any way
purposes (Hou, Lee, and Gunzenhauser 2017). Examination of four years of data from two
European universities in which SET was undertaken after grade release found that increasing a
student grade point by one would lead to 0.2-0.4 higher evaluations for instructors (Berezvai,
Lukáts, and Molontay 2021). Such are the complexities affecting SET ratings and student
feedback it is widely recognised that different SET practices are needed for different courses and
that SET should be augmented with faculty self-evaluation and peer-evaluation (Ching 2018).
However, partly because of the ease of delivering SET anonymously and via online survey at any
time, anonymous SET has, in many settings, become the primary means of evaluating teaching
staff. As some researchers have noted this has been particularly hazardous for teachers of
difficult, quantitative or unpopular courses, who are more likely to receive poor results and may
fail to receive tenure or promotion as a result (Uttl and Smibert 2017).
Given that SET scores and comments are often given consideration in performance reviews, and
decisions about promotion and tenure then it is likely that exposure to even the occasional or rare
offensive comment may contribute to ongoing stress. Conceptually the experience of receiving
anonymous non-constructive comments (at least at the extreme end of the continuum as
described by Lakeman et al, 2021) is similar to what has become known as ‘cyberbullying
which has been defined as an “aggressive, intentional act carried out by a group or individual
using electronic forms of contact, repeatedly and over time against a victim who cannot easily
defend himself or herself” (Smith et al. 2008, 376). Cyberbullying has in recent years been noted
to have serious impacts on the mental health of young people, even contributing to suicide
(Aboujaoude et al. 2015) and in some jurisdictions behaviour constituting cyber-bullying is
criminalised for that reason (Sathyanarayana Rao, Bansal, and Chandran 2018). However, to date
the impacts on health and wellbeing of exposure to personalised attacks (whether sustained or
5
This is an Accepted Manuscript (peer-reviewed) version of the following article:
Lakeman, R, Coutts, RA, Hutchinson, M, Massey, D, Nasrawi, D, Fielden, J & Lee, M 2022, 'Stress, distress, disorder and coping: the impact of anonymous student
evaluation of teaching on the health of higher education teachers', Assessment and Evaluation in Higher Education. https://doi.org/10.1080/02602938.2022.2060936.
It is deposited under the terms of the Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives License , which permits non-commercial re-use, distribution, and
reproduction in any medium, provided the original work is properly cited, and is not altered, transformed, or built upon in any way
intermitted) or even the exposure to lesser defaming comments has not been explored with
academic teaching staff.
In this paper we present findings from our larger mixed-methods research exploring quantitative
and qualitative responses from Australian academic staff about anonymous student feedback
they had received. Elsewhere we have reported findings on the nature and extent of these
nonconstructive comments (Lakeman et al. 2022). Highlighting that a large majority of
respondents reported receiving, nonconstructive and (liberally shared) comments in the form of
falsehoods, insults, misogynistic, homophobic, racist, or highly offensive remarks and calls for
their punishment or censure at some time in their career through anonymous SET processes. This
paper provides an exploration of the impact of anonymous SET on the mental health and
wellbeing of academic staff that completed this survey.
Methods
An online survey using Qualtrics was distributed using snowballing methods across
social media platforms, via email and a survey link in an article written for The Conversation
(Lee et al. 2021) inviting Australian academic staff to participate over a three-month period in
2021. The online survey included 30 questions (13 demographic, 7 exploring types and
examples of anonymous student feedback, 5 on the impact on teaching quality and 5 on mental
health and wellbeing). The questionnaire was piloted before release and approved by the
Southern Cross University Human Research Ethics Committee (2021/047).
Initially descriptive analysis, including percentages, median and means were calculated using
Statistical Package for the Social Sciences (SPSS) Version 27 (IBM Corp 2020). The Likert
scale response options rarely or never and often or always for the stress and physical and mental
6
This is an Accepted Manuscript (peer-reviewed) version of the following article:
Lakeman, R, Coutts, RA, Hutchinson, M, Massey, D, Nasrawi, D, Fielden, J & Lee, M 2022, 'Stress, distress, disorder and coping: the impact of anonymous student
evaluation of teaching on the health of higher education teachers', Assessment and Evaluation in Higher Education. https://doi.org/10.1080/02602938.2022.2060936.
It is deposited under the terms of the Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives License , which permits non-commercial re-use, distribution, and
reproduction in any medium, provided the original work is properly cited, and is not altered, transformed, or built upon in any way
health questions were summed to create variables suited to Chi Square analysis. After which,
thematic analysis was used to analyse the free-text responses informed by the analytical
framework described by Corbin and Strauss (2008). The superordinate theme was predetermined
by the question relating to how academics perceived receiving anonymous narrative student
feedback and how this impacted on their health and well-being. Two researchers (both health
professionals) coded ~100 responses using NVivo (QSR International Pty Ltd. 2012). It became
apparent rapidly that many responses related to the receipt of anonymous narrative feedback
being stressful for various reasons and additionally academics described how they coped,
additionally the impacts were perceived as distressing or impacting on health. Once these broad
themes were identified the first author reviewed the dataset in its entirety and coded each
response. The themes are reported with a degree of abstraction with some supporting quotes in
order to reduce and represent the dataset as a whole.
Findings
A total of 810 respondents completed the survey, most (N = 693) responded to the
questions relating to the impact of anonymous student narrative feedback on stress and also on
their physical and mental health. The demographic distribution of these respondents is show in
Table 1. The mean years working in the university sector was 13.39, with the majority having
Masters (13%) or Doctoral level qualifications (65%). The profile of the sample, females in the
majority and aged 40 – 60 years, reflects the profile of the Australian academic workforce that
has a median age of 46 years (May, Peetz, and Strachan 2013).
Table 1 near here
The vast majority of respondents (81%) reported that the receipt of anonymous narrative student
7
This is an Accepted Manuscript (peer-reviewed) version of the following article:
Lakeman, R, Coutts, RA, Hutchinson, M, Massey, D, Nasrawi, D, Fielden, J & Lee, M 2022, 'Stress, distress, disorder and coping: the impact of anonymous student
evaluation of teaching on the health of higher education teachers', Assessment and Evaluation in Higher Education. https://doi.org/10.1080/02602938.2022.2060936.
It is deposited under the terms of the Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives License , which permits non-commercial re-use, distribution, and
reproduction in any medium, provided the original work is properly cited, and is not altered, transformed, or built upon in any way
feedback caused personal stress (see Table 2). There was no significant association between the
report of stress and gender x2 ((4) N=683) = 4.58, p=.33). Conversely there was a significant
association with age x2 ((4) N=692) = 23.4, p=.0002), with those in the younger age bracket more
likely to report anonymous narrative student feedback often or always caused personal stress.
Table 2 near here
A little less than two-thirds (64%) of respondents indicated the receipt of anonymous feedback
impacted on their mental health (see Table 3). There was no significant association between
gender and any impact on mental health x2 ((4) N=693) = 2.02, p=.73). Again, as with stress,
there was a significant association with age x2 ((6) N=693) = 16.5, p=.011), with those in the
older age brackets more likely to report anonymous narrative student feedback impacted on their
mental health. In addition, 56% of respondents reported an impact upon their physical health.
With regard to physical health, there was no significant association with gender x2 ((4) N=693) =
.464, p=.94) or age x2 ((4) N=692) = 3.18, p=.52) and the report that anonymous narrative student
feedback impacted physical health
Table 3 near here
Respondents (n = 466) provided further narrative comments in response to the question “Please
comment or elaborate on how you perceive anonymised narrative feedback has impacted on your
health and wellbeing.
Stress
There was near consensus that the anticipation of anonymous student feedback was
stressful. A minority (n~30) stated that they had either not received negative anonymous
comments, had not for many years, or did not find it distressing:
8
This is an Accepted Manuscript (peer-reviewed) version of the following article:
Lakeman, R, Coutts, RA, Hutchinson, M, Massey, D, Nasrawi, D, Fielden, J & Lee, M 2022, 'Stress, distress, disorder and coping: the impact of anonymous student
evaluation of teaching on the health of higher education teachers', Assessment and Evaluation in Higher Education. https://doi.org/10.1080/02602938.2022.2060936.
It is deposited under the terms of the Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives License , which permits non-commercial re-use, distribution, and
reproduction in any medium, provided the original work is properly cited, and is not altered, transformed, or built upon in any way
I think the strongest impact for me has been on professional confidence. As stated
previously, earlier in my career when I already lacked confidence as an academic,
negative and disrespectful feedback often compounded feelings of being inadequate and
out of my depth. In my later years as an academic I can, at an intellectual level, more
effectively evaluate the validity of the feedback, but that doesn't take away the little thump
I get in my chest when I read something negative, unhelpful or disrespectful about myself
or my team or the unit which I have put hours and hours of thoughtful and considered
effort into developing. I still for a brief moment, second guess myself. These days I don't
tend to get negative feedback, but on the rare occasion it happens, I still get a physical
response.
Even fewer stated that they looked forward to receiving feedback and viewed it positively, but
they often did acknowledge that it was experienced as stressful by colleagues. Over thirty
respondents discussed ruminating, sometimes for days on negative or nonconstructive
comments:
Negative feedback that you cannot explore with the person who provided it, to find out
the context, for example, means you ruminate about it is about, how and where something
happened to lead to that comment, whether there is truth in it or not. It can take days or
weeks, depending on how offensive the comments were, to get it 'out of your head' and to
regain your perspective…This leads to loss of confidence in your abilities as a teacher.
While you might reflect and see how you can improve on some aspects, the unfairness of
a situation can rankle for a while and affect your self-esteem.
Many respondents noted that even if most comments were positive, they anticipated receiving
9
This is an Accepted Manuscript (peer-reviewed) version of the following article:
Lakeman, R, Coutts, RA, Hutchinson, M, Massey, D, Nasrawi, D, Fielden, J & Lee, M 2022, 'Stress, distress, disorder and coping: the impact of anonymous student
evaluation of teaching on the health of higher education teachers', Assessment and Evaluation in Higher Education. https://doi.org/10.1080/02602938.2022.2060936.
It is deposited under the terms of the Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives License , which permits non-commercial re-use, distribution, and
reproduction in any medium, provided the original work is properly cited, and is not altered, transformed, or built upon in any way
non-constructive, insulting, accusatory and potentially defamatory comments and this left them
anticipating the worst. Most respondents appeared resigned to being unable to respond to
anonymous comments in a constructive manner but also noted that this was inherently unjust
which further exacerbated stress and anxiety. Many were also aware that such comments
regardless of their veracity would be read by others and impact on maintenance of tenure or
promotion:
The non-constructive comments cause greater stress because there is nothing that can be
done about these comments and other people are going to read these comments. Sexist
and gendered comments and untruthful comments would be humiliating if other staff see
these. This causes stress. I had a migraine headache after receiving one batch of very
personalised negative feedback after a semester where I had been called in to Convene a
unit at late notice some of the anonymous comments were very personalised
attributing the content and assessments tasks to me personally and using words like 'She'
and "The woman'.
Many people reported that the stress was particularly prevalent around the time that feedback
was anticipated to be released:
I always feel stressed knowing that the feedback is coming out. I feel that I can't focus
when I know it is due to be released. I also worry about my colleagues and how they
might be feeling.
However, for many people the cycle of teaching and anonymous commentary appeared relentless
and led to a chronic state of arousal and stress. Some also noted that students could and did
develop social media campaigns targeting teachers they felt graded harshly and would lodge
vexatious complaints and appeals which they needed to defend but which also tarnished their
10
This is an Accepted Manuscript (peer-reviewed) version of the following article:
Lakeman, R, Coutts, RA, Hutchinson, M, Massey, D, Nasrawi, D, Fielden, J & Lee, M 2022, 'Stress, distress, disorder and coping: the impact of anonymous student
evaluation of teaching on the health of higher education teachers', Assessment and Evaluation in Higher Education. https://doi.org/10.1080/02602938.2022.2060936.
It is deposited under the terms of the Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives License , which permits non-commercial re-use, distribution, and
reproduction in any medium, provided the original work is properly cited, and is not altered, transformed, or built upon in any way
reputation and undermined their confidence:
I discovered through other staff that students in one … unit I taught created a Facebook
page of students concerned at my “harsh marking” and unreasonable suggestions… [for
example] if they hadn’t read the textbook they would find the exam difficult to pass. Part
of the strategy [students’] recommended was to flood reviews with negative comments.
Many people said that they were anxious about the unknown, that regardless of their best efforts
the comments of one or a few disgruntled students could and often did disproportionately impact
on them adversely:
I have more anxiety attached to reading 'mean-spirited comments' than I do about end of
semester moderation. It feels as if nothing you do (extra contact, supplementary sessions,
unpaid overtime to complete marking) is enough and results in poor sleep patterns and
early waking, where I am anxious about the day to come. My alcohol intake is higher
now than it ever was as a health professional, but if not for that I doubt I would relax at
all, come evaluation time). And yet my results on the feedback are overwhelmingly
positive and constructive - I get irritated at myself for caring what a few of the 'next
generation' think.
Respondents described feeling anxious, stressed, jilted, upset, worried, demoralized, exhausted,
powerless, dreading or feeling nervous before receiving anonymized feedback. People often
reported that they were not inherently anxious and were surprised by the workplace culture
relative to other industries they had worked in:
… you're being personally attacked. In no other workplace would what essentially
amounts to being anonymised victimisation/bullying be allowed, but in universities it is.
11
This is an Accepted Manuscript (peer-reviewed) version of the following article:
Lakeman, R, Coutts, RA, Hutchinson, M, Massey, D, Nasrawi, D, Fielden, J & Lee, M 2022, 'Stress, distress, disorder and coping: the impact of anonymous student
evaluation of teaching on the health of higher education teachers', Assessment and Evaluation in Higher Education. https://doi.org/10.1080/02602938.2022.2060936.
It is deposited under the terms of the Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives License , which permits non-commercial re-use, distribution, and
reproduction in any medium, provided the original work is properly cited, and is not altered, transformed, or built upon in any way
Stress, even if not experienced as acutely distressing was noted to have negative impacts on
health, relationships and was perceived by some to lead to enduring problems with health:
The discussions that 'management' have had with me about negative comments is a
stressor. The assumption is that the comments are valid when they are obviously vitriolic
and do not deal with the course. Having to justify yourself when the 'nasty' unhelpful
personal comments are not filtered out …. The mental and physical impacts include
headaches, tiredness, insomnia, anxiety and … irritability. Part of the issue is that the
stress is not [shot-term] but becomes a slow long-term stress response were the
symptoms can end up being 'chronic'.
Distress
Many respondents described extreme distress in response to anonymous comments which
certainly indicated more than mild or moderate anxiety:
I easily lose sleep and feel extremely distressed (to the point of cognitive impairment)…
by student feedback, particularly if it is untrue, disrespectful and condescending.
Many respondents reported being unprepared for the level of personalized and hateful
commentary that was widely perceived as being normal.
…Being told by a student that I should kill myself and having that feedback allowed to be
given to me was disgraceful. It undermined my own minimal self-confidence as a new
academic… there was minimal … peer support…the common phrase was … 'everyone
gets it'.
Mental health problems of quite marked severity were mentioned by many respondents e.g. “…
has led to alcohol abuse, depression, thoughts of self-harm and anxiety”. Whilst many
12
This is an Accepted Manuscript (peer-reviewed) version of the following article:
Lakeman, R, Coutts, RA, Hutchinson, M, Massey, D, Nasrawi, D, Fielden, J & Lee, M 2022, 'Stress, distress, disorder and coping: the impact of anonymous student
evaluation of teaching on the health of higher education teachers', Assessment and Evaluation in Higher Education. https://doi.org/10.1080/02602938.2022.2060936.
It is deposited under the terms of the Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives License , which permits non-commercial re-use, distribution, and
reproduction in any medium, provided the original work is properly cited, and is not altered, transformed, or built upon in any way
respondents reported pervasive mental health issues related to anonymous comments generally,
some respondents spoke of the impact of specific events in which students appeared to collude in
orchestrating a campaign of personalised and non-constructive feedback:
I am suffering burnout in relation to this incident, which involved student collusion, lack
of support from within the Uni, and ongoing harms from the inability to get the matter
rectified. My mental health has been affected - anxiety and depression symptomology,
extreme stress, along with the burnout. Physically, I actually had a large amount of my
hair fall out (starting to grow back now), my sleep has been adversely affected, and I
have just been generally run-down health wise.
Some teachers (>15) reported having resigned from tenured positions because of the impact of
anonymous student feedback and still others reported that such feedback had led to a failure to be
promoted. Many respondents reported that anonymous feedback undermined their confidence to
such a degree that they anticipated resigning or were seeking employment elsewhere:
Despite many years teaching the current climate of unit evaluation is increasingly
causing mental health issues (anxiety, stress, depression). I know of colleagues who have
been confident and good but become demoralised and unhappy with teaching due to the
attitude of students - they are paying for a degree and they expect to pass, no matter what
standard they produce. Unfortunately, talented teachers are leaving academia due to the
bullying, harassment and abuse received by their students… At some point I will also
leave because of the stress.
Disorder
Around 60 of the respondents described physical symptoms which they associated with
anticipation of anonymous student evaluation. Sleep disruption was the most commonly cited
13
This is an Accepted Manuscript (peer-reviewed) version of the following article:
Lakeman, R, Coutts, RA, Hutchinson, M, Massey, D, Nasrawi, D, Fielden, J & Lee, M 2022, 'Stress, distress, disorder and coping: the impact of anonymous student
evaluation of teaching on the health of higher education teachers', Assessment and Evaluation in Higher Education. https://doi.org/10.1080/02602938.2022.2060936.
It is deposited under the terms of the Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives License , which permits non-commercial re-use, distribution, and
reproduction in any medium, provided the original work is properly cited, and is not altered, transformed, or built upon in any way
problems. Further commonly reported experiences included, feeling nauseous or “physically
sick”, gastrointestinal upset, migraines, headaches, sweating, palpitations, chest pain, elevated
blood pressure, loss of appetite, and weight gain. Many reported quite profound disorders and
some respondents reported seeking counselling or therapy, professional help for anxiety and
distress, medical attention or reported accessing employment assistance programmes as a
consequence of receiving anonymous feedback or “relentless attacks” by specific students:
My physical, emotional and mental health is now unrecognisable from when I started
this job. I have persistent ongoing anxiety now. I don’t ever sleep wellI have no life
outside of work in an attempt to be faultless and avoid bad reviews. And still they come.
I’ve put on roughly 35kg in two years from stress eating. I destroyed my last relationship
by talking non-stop about evaluations and student emails and comments and working
ridiculous hours to meet expectations… I have no idea how to move past this. I gave
counselling a go and it didn’t help. I don’t really know how to move forward…I don’t
think you can ever put too fine a point on the impact that ongoing periodic anonymous
evaluations by students, has on your mental well-being. I know colleagues that are
terrified to open theirs when they’re alone, for fear of their response. I know one who had
just… read her evaluations and went off on leave for three months because of the trauma,
and she’s never been the same since. She now refuses to open evaluations at all. This is
genuinely destroying lives.
For some respondents the instances of receiving non-constructive feedback or being judged on
the basis of it had been exceptionally traumatic. Some recounted disturbed sleep, nightmares and
being easily emotionally triggered by reminders of the events:
The mere mention of, or … reminders of these surveys give me anxiety and panic attacks.
14
This is an Accepted Manuscript (peer-reviewed) version of the following article:
Lakeman, R, Coutts, RA, Hutchinson, M, Massey, D, Nasrawi, D, Fielden, J & Lee, M 2022, 'Stress, distress, disorder and coping: the impact of anonymous student
evaluation of teaching on the health of higher education teachers', Assessment and Evaluation in Higher Education. https://doi.org/10.1080/02602938.2022.2060936.
It is deposited under the terms of the Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives License , which permits non-commercial re-use, distribution, and
reproduction in any medium, provided the original work is properly cited, and is not altered, transformed, or built upon in any way
Some respondents did associate acute and chronic illnesses to stress and worry related to
anonymous student comments:
I am a confident person. However, the long- term effect of being judged by the people you
are assessing is very negative. I had surgery on aneurysms last year which I feel are a
direct result of working in universities… The worst job I have ever had…
I have had to go off on stress leave, I even developed cancer related to long term
protracted levels of stress which was contributed to, in part by, the imbalance of power
and weight that management gives to student’s [feedback]…
Coping
Respondents identified cognitive and behavioural strategies to cope with the stress and
anxiety associated with anonymous SET. The most commonly cited method of coping was
avoiding reading the feedback. Some reported having stopped reading it altogether or only
reading it when they had to, in order to summarise or prepare a report relating to their
performance:
There is a lot of anxiety associated with opening results and reading the comments for
the first time. I can delay this for as long as possible and avoid having to read it. I once
left it a full 5 months before opening up the survey until it is was quite far back in the past
that I felt I could read it...
The negative narrative feedback has had such a negative impact on my health and
wellbeing this year that I decided that I will no longer read any of the comments, positive
or negative at the end of the semester. I have downloaded the comments and will perhaps
read them later this year, but it still feels too fresh.
15
This is an Accepted Manuscript (peer-reviewed) version of the following article:
Lakeman, R, Coutts, RA, Hutchinson, M, Massey, D, Nasrawi, D, Fielden, J & Lee, M 2022, 'Stress, distress, disorder and coping: the impact of anonymous student
evaluation of teaching on the health of higher education teachers', Assessment and Evaluation in Higher Education. https://doi.org/10.1080/02602938.2022.2060936.
It is deposited under the terms of the Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives License , which permits non-commercial re-use, distribution, and
reproduction in any medium, provided the original work is properly cited, and is not altered, transformed, or built upon in any way
Many reported that they coped by fostering an attitude of not caring, actively attempting to
reframe the experience, only lingering on the positive feedback or developing a “thick skin”:
As I consider it of little value, it has little effect. It usually consists of really enthusiastic
students with a tendency to blow sunshine everywhere, or bitter and twisted students who
believe in their own entitlement. Allowing feedback from either group to influence
practice is unwise.
There were many instances cited of teachers over-compensating, working long hours or going to
quite extra-ordinary efforts to ingratiate themselves to students and attempting to please them in
order to avoid scathing feedback. This method of coping rarely achieved the desired outcome
with anonymous feedback often being reported as inaccurate or poor despite the teacher’s best
efforts and this in turn accentuating disappointment:
I overworked myself during a semester to ensure I went above and beyond, scaffolded the
students and made each learning opportunity to be as positive and reinforced as possible.
I worked 60-70hr weeks for 3-4 weeks, and on top of reduced physical activity (sport and
gym), I was working at home, and experienced a home injury. I believe this injury to be
directly related to fatigue that came off the back of long hours to try and get everything
done and to a standard above and beyond what the students had received. I ended up
having to take the rest of the semester off and yet in student feedback, I was told that I
didn't give timely feedback (until my injury, all students had received answers to their
questions, or feedback within a 24hr period). A few other things were said, but I refuse to
go back and look at it, because of how poor the feedback was…
Many respondents reported the need to debrief with peers, colleagues, family and friends when
they received anonymous feedback. Some experienced teachers stated they invited peers to
16
This is an Accepted Manuscript (peer-reviewed) version of the following article:
Lakeman, R, Coutts, RA, Hutchinson, M, Massey, D, Nasrawi, D, Fielden, J & Lee, M 2022, 'Stress, distress, disorder and coping: the impact of anonymous student
evaluation of teaching on the health of higher education teachers', Assessment and Evaluation in Higher Education. https://doi.org/10.1080/02602938.2022.2060936.
It is deposited under the terms of the Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives License , which permits non-commercial re-use, distribution, and
reproduction in any medium, provided the original work is properly cited, and is not altered, transformed, or built upon in any way
review their teaching, rather than relying on narrative feedback of their performance:
There have been times I have been reduced to tears when reading the anonymous
feedback from students, and I have had to reach out for support to process some of the
comments, usually from peers who know me and my teaching style well.
Several respondents reported having positive interactions with their immediate managers but a
far greater number perceived that anonymous student feedback was over-valued by the
University and teaching staff were largely unsupported by University management. Some
respondents stated they had to respond to each anonymous critical comment, even scurrilous
calls for their sacking. Most noted that it was rare for insulting comments to be redacted, and
many reported requesting insulting comments be redacted. However, more often than not
teaching staff had to explain and defend comments. In some Universities the focus of interest and
/ or concern was on numerical evaluations or mean ratings, which could readily be skewed by
those who did give anonymous and non-constructive feedback. Concern about maintaining an
‘above average’ mean rating (which is mathematically impossible) exacerbated anxiety:
I have been bullied by this mechanism, I know of close colleagues who have been
hospitalised and / or had to take significant personal leave in the aftermath of the survey
results. It’s appalling and management do nothing about it despite years of staff
complaints.
I experience such huge levels of anxiety when evaluations are released, that stays with
me for several weeks after. There is no discussion or debrief offered in my school. So
long as the numbers are above the desired cut-off… management are not interested.
Anxiety, stress and depression are common themes around the student evaluation time.
17
This is an Accepted Manuscript (peer-reviewed) version of the following article:
Lakeman, R, Coutts, RA, Hutchinson, M, Massey, D, Nasrawi, D, Fielden, J & Lee, M 2022, 'Stress, distress, disorder and coping: the impact of anonymous student
evaluation of teaching on the health of higher education teachers', Assessment and Evaluation in Higher Education. https://doi.org/10.1080/02602938.2022.2060936.
It is deposited under the terms of the Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives License , which permits non-commercial re-use, distribution, and
reproduction in any medium, provided the original work is properly cited, and is not altered, transformed, or built upon in any way
Many teachers reported being confident in their performance despite non-constructive feedback.
Their criticism of executive is often the failure to recognise that many disgruntled students are
“functionally illiterate” and appeasing undeserving students with passing grades, and thus raising
satisfaction is at odds with their perceived professional ethics. Teaching staff, particularly non-
tenured or casual staff are aware that their continued employment is often contingent on positive
feedback, regardless of its validity:
I was bullied all throughout my school life, and this anonymised feedback has left me
feeling pretty much the same as that. It often feels like the anonymised feedback is taken
as gospel by university management, with academics unable to speak up in their own
defence and attempts to do so being seen as a "doth protest too much" situation by
management. It leaves casual academics in a no-win situation where they're constantly
under pressure to perform their best, in the hopes that they won't attract the ire of a petty
bully who can determine with a few nasty words of feedback whether the casual academic
will continue to have a job next semester or not.
It was clear that many respondents were not coping well. Some noted that they drank alcohol
more heavily or that they became easily angered at home which impacted on their personal
relationships and in turn further impacting on work performance:
I have at times allowed the stress it has caused to bring it home and relate this to my
partner. This has had a negative effect upon our relationship. My partner says I shouldn't
let it upset me. This is impossible when it means I get an unsatisfactory performance
development review and rejections for promotion, even though my publication record
18
This is an Accepted Manuscript (peer-reviewed) version of the following article:
Lakeman, R, Coutts, RA, Hutchinson, M, Massey, D, Nasrawi, D, Fielden, J & Lee, M 2022, 'Stress, distress, disorder and coping: the impact of anonymous student
evaluation of teaching on the health of higher education teachers', Assessment and Evaluation in Higher Education. https://doi.org/10.1080/02602938.2022.2060936.
It is deposited under the terms of the Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives License , which permits non-commercial re-use, distribution, and
reproduction in any medium, provided the original work is properly cited, and is not altered, transformed, or built upon in any way
outshines most others in my department. This stress gives me sleepless nights, which in
turn affects my performance the following day.
Discussion
This paper forms part of a larger study investigating the nature, extent and impact of non-
constructive anonymous narrative commentary in SET in Australian universities. It specifically
examined the self-reported impacts on stress, health and wellbeing of being in receipt of
potentially narrative feedback. A limitation of this survey approach is that it is possible that
academics with experience of negative narrative comments and impacts were more likely to
complete the survey. Therefore’ the prevalence of non-constructive feedback and the prevalence
of the adverse impacts cannot be extrapolated to higher education teachers in general. However,
the large number of responses to the survey and the rich description of perceived impacts does
lend support to the proposition that in Australia non-constructive and offensive narrative
comments are not uncommon and the impacts on health range from minor stress, psychological
distress to serious health impacts.
The potential of receiving anonymous comments which are perceived as offensive, defamatory,
punishing or false contributes to stress during any teaching period. Such stress is exacerbated by
the potential implications of receiving such comments, of having to explain, defend or justify
one’s behaviour, or present a positive evaluation to support performance reviews or continuing
tenure. Stress in itself is an ordinary part of life but the literature linking stress, particularly
unremitting stress to negative health outcomes is vast (O'Connor, Thayer, and Vedhara 2021).
The impacts of stress on health and well-being is moderated by the use of effective coping, and
this premise forms the basis of ensuring employees have access to ‘stress management’
programmes (Hendrix et al. 1988). Avoidance of reviewing narrative feedback was a commonly
19
This is an Accepted Manuscript (peer-reviewed) version of the following article:
Lakeman, R, Coutts, RA, Hutchinson, M, Massey, D, Nasrawi, D, Fielden, J & Lee, M 2022, 'Stress, distress, disorder and coping: the impact of anonymous student
evaluation of teaching on the health of higher education teachers', Assessment and Evaluation in Higher Education. https://doi.org/10.1080/02602938.2022.2060936.
It is deposited under the terms of the Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives License , which permits non-commercial re-use, distribution, and
reproduction in any medium, provided the original work is properly cited, and is not altered, transformed, or built upon in any way
reported coping mechanism which may be effective in alleviating immediate stress but in
circumstances in which such feedback is required to be reviewed at least annually in
performance review processes deferring exploration could also lead to prolonged stress and
anxiety. Avoidance is generally considered a maladaptive strategy for dealing with traumatic
events and has been found to inhibit opportunities for post-traumatic growth (Brooks et al. 2019).
Avoiding reviewing feedback also renders it useless in contributing to improvements in teaching
practice.
Coping styles have been broadly categorised into ‘problem focused’, that is efforts to address the
problem, and ‘emotion focused’ which attends primarily to address the emotions arising from a
stressor (Lazarus 1990). What counts as useful or adaptive is highly dependent on context as well
as the outcomes. It is difficult to see how academics faced with the potential for non-constructive
anonymous feedback can reasonably solve this problem. Some coping strategies such as
attempting to be ingratiating to students to win their affection don’t appear to work and
addressing the anxiety by engaging in substance abuse, may be a reasonable and even socially
acceptable response but can also contribute to negative health and social consequences.
Cognitive reappraisal of the meaning of feedback e.g. “that it is invalidand acknowledging that
the worst excesses reflected the pathology or the perpetrator and had nothing to do with the value
of the teacher or the quality of their teaching appeared most helpful. However, where
performance reviews depended on positive feedback this view of feedback needed to be shared
with supervisors and others for this coping strategy to be ultimately effective.
For some the experience of ever having received such wounding comments is understandably
distressing. Distress is exacerbated by the existential threat such comments and associated
negative ratings pose such as potential loss of employment, damage to reputation, and erosion of
20
This is an Accepted Manuscript (peer-reviewed) version of the following article:
Lakeman, R, Coutts, RA, Hutchinson, M, Massey, D, Nasrawi, D, Fielden, J & Lee, M 2022, 'Stress, distress, disorder and coping: the impact of anonymous student
evaluation of teaching on the health of higher education teachers', Assessment and Evaluation in Higher Education. https://doi.org/10.1080/02602938.2022.2060936.
It is deposited under the terms of the Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives License , which permits non-commercial re-use, distribution, and
reproduction in any medium, provided the original work is properly cited, and is not altered, transformed, or built upon in any way
professional confidence. For many people the distress was of such magnitude and the ongoing
responses such that they would likely meet diagnostic criteria for a trauma or stress related
disorder (American Psychiatric Association. 2013). The event of receiving damaging comments
in itself may not be sufficiently severe or life-threatening to qualify individuals for a diagnosis of
post-traumatic stress disorder (American Psychiatric Association. 2013). However, the rich
description provided by some respondents of avoidance, ineffectual coping responses, emotional
numbing, sleep disturbances, the unwelcome intrusion of thoughts about feedback into one’s life,
extreme anticipatory anxiety and being ‘triggered’ into extreme states by reminders of the
process are all in accord with contemporary understandings of psychological trauma (Wastell
2005). The extreme, physical symptoms which some people associated with being triggered or
reminded about feedback is also consistent with a conceptualisation the experience for some as
being traumatic and the impacts being essentially a post-traumatic syndrome (Rothschild 2017).
At the very least a sizeable number of respondents reported chronic stress and associated very
serious health conditions (whether justified or not) to the exposure to anonymous narrative
comments.
The findings are perhaps not surprising as research has for some time highlighted a host of
negative emotional, psychological and physical outcomes associated with exposure to workplace
stressors (Jones, Gaffney-Rhys, and Jones 2014) and a large number of academics have reported
exposure to some quite vile commentary (Lakeman et al. 2022). Heffernan and Bosetti (2021)
report that the incivility in higher education is increasing and is associated with reduced physical
and psychological wellbeing (Heffernan and Bosetti 2021) and offensive anonymous narrative
feedback may be emblematic of this trend. This research highlights the potential and actual
harms related to health and wellbeing associated with one common workplace practice which in
21
This is an Accepted Manuscript (peer-reviewed) version of the following article:
Lakeman, R, Coutts, RA, Hutchinson, M, Massey, D, Nasrawi, D, Fielden, J & Lee, M 2022, 'Stress, distress, disorder and coping: the impact of anonymous student
evaluation of teaching on the health of higher education teachers', Assessment and Evaluation in Higher Education. https://doi.org/10.1080/02602938.2022.2060936.
It is deposited under the terms of the Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives License , which permits non-commercial re-use, distribution, and
reproduction in any medium, provided the original work is properly cited, and is not altered, transformed, or built upon in any way
its current form enables and legitimises incivility with sometimes personally devastating impacts.
A further way of conceptualising the impact of anonymous narrative feedback is through
conceptualising the problem as bullying. The anonymity of respondents, the potential for
orchestrated and repeated targeting of some individuals with highly offensive, and personalised
remarks without any right of reply meets the criteria for cyber-bullying which has been
criminalised in some jurisdictions (Clayson and Haley 2011). Similar to bullying in the
workplace, not all people are targeted or impacted but for those that are the consequences
particularly in relation to mental health can be severe (Conway et al. 2021).
Conclusion
A longstanding principle in dealing with occupational stress is to aim for the prevention
or alleviation of stress rather than wait and address health impacts (Schabracq, Winnubst, and
Cooper 2003). In this instance there are a number of potential primary preventions that could
easily be employed such as deleting any student survey which is potentially defamatory,
accusatory, offensive or if identifiable would represent a breach of faculty conduct. Whilst little
is known about student motivations for engaging in such behaviour (and this could be a useful
future line of investigation), it has been proposed that the conditions of anonymity,
deindividuation associated with online surveys and knowledge that anything can be said with
impunity in these surveys, that some otherwise ‘civil’ students might be vulnerable to engaging
in incivility towards teaching staff (Lakeman et al. 2022). The knowledge that anonymity will be
removed should a student breach codes of conduct or if serious allegations are made which
require investigation might be sufficient in moderating student behaviour and reducing teaching
staff exposure to further traumatic events. Meanwhile, this paper at least stands as testimony to
the suffering which some people have experienced as a consequence of exposure to non-
22
This is an Accepted Manuscript (peer-reviewed) version of the following article:
Lakeman, R, Coutts, RA, Hutchinson, M, Massey, D, Nasrawi, D, Fielden, J & Lee, M 2022, 'Stress, distress, disorder and coping: the impact of anonymous student
evaluation of teaching on the health of higher education teachers', Assessment and Evaluation in Higher Education. https://doi.org/10.1080/02602938.2022.2060936.
It is deposited under the terms of the Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives License , which permits non-commercial re-use, distribution, and
reproduction in any medium, provided the original work is properly cited, and is not altered, transformed, or built upon in any way
constructive evaluation of teaching and suggests that the impacts are severe and may be costly to
remedy.
Funding
This research received no grant from any funding agency in the public, commercial, or not-for-profit
sectors.
Declaration of Conflicting Interests
The authors declare that there is no conflict of interest.
Data Availability Statement
The data that support the findings of this study are available from the corresponding author, upon
reasonable request.
23
This is an Accepted Manuscript (peer-reviewed) version of the following article:
Lakeman, R, Coutts, RA, Hutchinson, M, Massey, D, Nasrawi, D, Fielden, J & Lee, M 2022, 'Stress, distress, disorder and coping: the impact of anonymous student
evaluation of teaching on the health of higher education teachers', Assessment and Evaluation in Higher Education. https://doi.org/10.1080/02602938.2022.2060936.
It is deposited under the terms of the Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives License , which permits non-commercial re-use, distribution, and
reproduction in any medium, provided the original work is properly cited, and is not altered, transformed, or built upon in any way
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... For example, Hessler et al. (2018) distributed cookies to a group of medical students prior to the administration of SET, and this led to significantly higher SET scores compared to a cookie-deprived control group. It is widely acknowledged that SET scores are skewed by unhappy students (Clayson and Haley 2011;Uttl and Smibert 2017;Wallace, Lewis, and Allen 2019;LeFebvre, Carmack, and Pederson 2020;Heffernan 2022;Lakeman et al. 2022 Stroebe (2020) has asserted that SET encourages grade inflation, rewards poor teaching, and punishes those who grade strictly or instruct in challenging courses. Carpenter, Witherby, and Tauber (2020) have found that student evaluation of teaching effectiveness can be a poor predictor of actual learning. ...
... This paper reports the findings of quantitative and qualitative survey responses, extending on previous analysis by Lakeman et al. (2021Lakeman et al. ( , 2022. These previous publications elicited many examples of anonymous comments associated with SET, which were insulting, projected blame, addressed in an insulting way people's appearance and attire, made unfounded allegations, or were threatening and punishing . ...
Article
Full-text available
Student evaluation of teaching (SET) has become a ubiquitous feature of higher education. The attainment and maintenance of positive SET is essential for most teaching staff to obtain and maintain tenure. It is not uncommon for teachers to receive offensive and non-constructive commentary unrelated to teaching quality. Regular exposure to SET contributes to stress and adversely impacts mental health and well-being. We surveyed Australian teaching academics in 2021, and in this paper, we explore the perceived impacts of SET on the teaching and learning experience, academic standards and quality. Many respondents perceived that SET contributes to an erosion of standards and inflation of grades. A thematic analysis of open-ended questions revealed potential mechanisms for these impacts. These include enabling a culture of incivility, elevating stress and anxiety in teaching staff, and pressure to change approaches to teaching and assessment to achieve the highest scores. Playing the SET game involves balancing a commitment to quality and standards with concessions to ensure optimal student satisfaction. Anonymous SET is overvalued, erodes standards and contributes to incivility. The process of SET needs urgent reform.
... Numărul acestor examinări critice arată că, de foarte multe ori, sub influența unor concepții manageriale înguste, necompetente, această tehnică, foarte utilă în sine, este compromisă printr-o folosire inadecvată. Cercetările respective au semnalat că adesea chestionarele de evaluare nu măsoară cu adevărat calitatea activității de instruire (Judis, 1982), că rigoarea notării la examinare este corelată într-un mod problematic cu rezultate defavorabile în așa-numitele "student ratings" (Greenwald & Gillmore, 1997) și că presiunea asociată cu acestea îi determină pe profesori să renunțe la exigențele de calitate a educației pe care și le-au asumat (Breen, 2022), că utilizarea abuzivă sau incompetentă a chestionarelor anonime are efecte psihologice și morale foarte dăunătoare (Lakeman et al., 2022), că acestea pot dăuna relației profesor-student/elev, că integritatea interpretării rezultatelor este chestionabilă, că așteptările foarte diferite cu privire la aceste rezultate în instituții diferite creează inechitate (Hou, Lee, & Gunzenhauser, 2017, p. 326), că stereotipurile și atitudinile rasiste sau sexiste se reflectă în evaluarea cursurilor și a predării (Heffernan, 2022) etc. ...
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Către autorii proiectului de lege. Propunerile pe care vi le adresez au în vedere norme ce ar trebui să contribuie la formarea unei culturi autentice a educației și cercetării științifice în universitățile din România, luând în considerare nevoile studenților și profesorilor deopotrivă. Ele țin seama de contrastul dintre idealul umanist al contribuției oneste la răspândirea/îmbogățirea cunoașterii și unele idei preconcepute, înclinații mimetice superficiale sau practici birocratice care deturnează sau chiar falsifică acest ideal, instituind nu reguli, ci simulacre șubrede ce tind să dobândească odată cu trecerea timpului un conținut mai mult decât îndoielnic. Observațiile și argumentele pe care vi le transmit sunt concepute pentru a semnala nevoia nuanțărilor textuale, pe baza unei reflecții aprofundate și documentate, astfel încât textul propunerii de lege să reflecte nu numai asumarea mecanică a unor obiective dezirabile, ci felul în care acele obiective ar trebui să fie interpretate în concordanță cu valorile esențiale ale culturii universitare. Cele mai multe dintre ele au în vedere formulări neglijente sau omisiuni discutabile, tributare unei înțelegeri simpliste a culturii academice și a practicii educaționale, care au apărut în momentul adoptării Legii nr. 1 din 2011 prin procedura parlamentară specială a asumării răspunderii de către guvern și nu au fost corectate până acum (de tipul titlului secțiunii a treia din capitolul II al titlului IV „Evaluarea calității cadrelor didactice”, care transmite la ideea eronată potrivit căreia evaluarea are drept obiect persoana cadrului didactic, și nu o anumită parte a activităților pe care el le desfășoară; de altfel, acest titlu a fost pe bună dreptate corectat în noul proiectul de lege, devenind „Evaluarea calității activității cadrelor didactice”). Rolul acestor propuneri este acela de a favoriza un climat de muncă echitabil, deschis, creator, fondat pe onestitate academică și deliberare rațională, care cultivă responsabilitatea față de interesul public. Ele clarifică normativ unele dintre reglementările legii, care, atunci când sunt interpretate eronat, conduc la scăderea calității procesului educațional și de cercetare în universitățile din România.
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