Guild takes no position on NSS boycott despite opposing link between Teaching Excellence Framework and increased fees

Written by Gino Spocchia
Geography Student
Images by NUS

Final-year undergraduates across the UK are being encouraged to disrupt the 2017 National Student Survey (NSS). The boycott follows recent patterns of fractious relations between the government, universities, and students. It also follows a motion at the national NUS conference in April 2016, in which student union representatives voted to enact a NSS boycott if planned government reforms went ahead.

The supposed reforms come under the Higher Education Bill

The supposed reforms come under the Higher Education Bill, which is currently in the ‘Report stage’ at the House of Lords. It represents a set of reforms that have rolled towards fruition despite ongoing amendments to the proposal. These have included assurances of university independence from ministers.

Although, the remaining features of the bill include the most controversial: the ability for universities to raise fees further under the teaching excellence framework (TEF). Thus, minor changes have not been enough to quell the concerns felt by many students and staff, and counter-initiatives such as the NSS boycott continue.

Indeed, boycotting the 2017 NSS is more than symbolism on behalf of the NUS. It is a practical attempt of contestable quality to hinder the government’s use of student data in the enforcement of higher fees.

Speaking in Times Higher Education (THE), Anastazja Oppenheim, campaigns officer at the University of the Arts London’s student union and NCAFC national committee member, hoped that the boycott would ‘render the TEF unworkable, and seriously disrupt the government’s higher education reforms as a whole.’

Notably, the annual NSS scores would be used alongside graduation rates and employment prospects, in the assessment of university credibility. These are mechanisms that are attempting to move government ‘marketisation’ of the education sector forward, under the guise of reform and raising student satisfaction.

This refers to universities being rewarded with the ability to increase fees, and receive funding, as well as an increased institutional focus on branding the student experience – not building it. Correspondingly, many in the academic sector have been concerned at the ‘marketisation’ of the universities that began with fee increases in 2012.

The marketization argument holds up, considering the probable integrity of many NSS responses. According to the Higher Education Funding Council for England, who runs the NSS, there have been 30 cases of university staff intervening in the inflation of survey responses over the past seven years.

These hold up as evidence of the pressure that universities are under, in order to receive positive responses

In six instances, completing the NSS was compromised by direct staff intervention. These hold up as evidence of the pressure that universities are under, in order to receive positive responses.

Problematically, university NSS responses feed into the TEF – the mechanism for fee increases. Universities including the University of Birmingham (UoB), University of Manchester and Durham University have already been allowed to put fees at £9,250 for next September.

Hence, Hope Worsdale, University of Warwick’s Education Officer, said to THE that the NSS would be used as ‘a weapon to beat academic staff with and as an excuse to cut courses and close departments.’ It could also mean that good universities without high NSS ratings would lose financial support, thereby constructing inequality into the undergraduate experience.

Research has also uncovered that the NSS has been marginally impacted by extremely enthusiastic university promotion. In the 2014 survey, 6.1% of final year undergraduates completing the survey said “yes” to every question. This is the growing trend of ‘yea-saying’, which does not allow for honest or accurate response.

NSS promotion at UoB has been noticeable across campus, which has included an intense spread of banners, flyers, and posters using the new NSS rebrand. It has also come alongside an email from the pro-Vice Chancellor, Kathleen Armour, who said the ‘NSS is particularly important to us as a means of understanding what we are doing well and should continue to do, and what we could do better’.

'the Guild has not taken a position on this issue and leaves the decision to boycott the NSS up to the individual conscience of finalists'

Crucially, the Guild of Students has decided that it would not actively be taking part in the NSS boycott. In a statement sent to Redbrick, Representation and Resources Officer Brandon Hattiloney said that the Guild would leave the decision to boycott the NSS up to individuals rather than support it as a union.

‘An idea was submitted through Your Ideas, the Guild’s democratic process, to determine our stance on the NSS Boycott – however, this Idea did not receive enough votes for a decision to be made,’ the statement said.

‘As a result, though we oppose the link between the TEF and increased fees, the Guild has not taken a position on this issue and leaves the decision to boycott the NSS up to the individual conscience of finalists.’