Guild President Sean Turner outlines why he recomends boycotting the NSS…

TL;DR: The Government plans to use National Student Survey (NSS) results to increase tuition fees. Boycotting the NSS will disrupt this and is the last chance students have to make an impact on the policy.

If you haven’t seen already, there is a cross-campus vote on this week asking you if you think the Guild should support a Boycott of the National Student Survey (NSS). If you’re not au fait with the current debates around Higher Education Policy then this may seem a bit out of the blue – why would a students’ union want to ruin a seemingly innocuous survey of student opinion? I hope to go some way to explain the background of this and then why you should join me in voting yes to a boycott.

What is the NSS?

In almost all UK universities, when undergraduate students reach the final semester of their degree, their university asks them to complete the NSS. This survey asks questions around their experience during their course: from the quality of assessment and feedback to how well your timetable works for you. The resulting data is used for national higher education league tables and for institutions to track their own performance internally. This data is pretty much the only quantitive feedback universities have from students and ergo is used to form their plans for improvement year on year. NSS results also allow universities to see which departments are underperforming and in which aspects they are underperforming. Further, the “free text comments box” on the surveys often give institutions the ability to gain detailed qualitative feedback specific to the courses they run. This all sounds brilliant, right? Well, on the whole it is. It is a simple way for students to let their universities know where they improve, so why the hell would anybody want students to stop filling it out?

What is TEF and why is it flawed?

Enter politics. This government have put forward their divisive Higher Education (HE) Bill. Amid a concoction of problematic proposals in this bill, is the introduction of the Teaching Excellence Framework (TEF). The TEF aims to measure teaching quality at each university: standards will be driven up, applicants will be better informed and institutions will put more focus on improving the student experience – a good thing then, right? It would be good, and I can almost sympathise with the government in their efforts, but they have not considered the implications of the measures proposed. (At least, I give them the benefit of the doubt on that; for, if they have considered the implications and are still going ahead then I call their ethics into question.)

What can possibly be so wrong with these metrics? There are six measures chosen by which teaching, according to this government, should be measured. See if they’re what you’d consider to be measures of good teaching:

  • Teaching on my course according to NSS
  • Assessment and feedback according to NSS
  • Academic support according to NSS
  • Drop-out rates
  • Proportion of students going on to employment/ further study
  • Proportion of students going on to highly skilled employment/ further study

Is it right that your lecturer’s ability to teach will be measured on how “high skilled” your job is considered after graduation? Is it fair to say that a significant reason people drop out of university is because of less than satisfactory teaching? Clearly not. These metrics are ill-thought-out and fail to acknowledge the complexity of university teaching. Further, there is no weighting to the fact that some courses have inherently better employment prospects and others have systematically higher drop-out rates.

Why should I support a boycott?

If the TEF metrics were not problematic enough in isolation, the real problems arise when you find out what the Government plan to do with them next. The plan is to rank each institution by its TEF score of “Gold”, “Silver” or “Bronze”, based on the number of metrics that university is deemed to be “passing” set benchmarks in, over the course of three years. For students starting their courses in September 2017 or September 2018, fees for institutions that have taken part in TEF will rise to £9,250. In the year following that, universities that are ranked “Silver” or “Gold” will be able to continue raising their fees in line with inflation. However, universities that are ranked “Bronze” will only be able to raise their fees by 50% of inflation. To do this, the government will have to lift the cap on tuition fees from £9,000. I do not believe that there should be a fee for Higher Education and, according to Guild Summit, the students of the University of Liverpool believe we should support campaigning for free education. Hence, I would not be doing my duty to the students if I did not support the boycott.

What would TEF mean for education?

There are further moral questions raised by this. Firstly, our feedback will be bastardised and used against us. If students rank their institution highly then it will mean that the institution can charge more money. Furthermore, those institutions that are considered “worse” at teaching will not be able to charge as much as those considered “better”. Surely it is the case that those “worse” institutions are the ones that need more investment to improve? This is compounded by the fact that institutions such as Oxford and Cambridge will score very highly on the employability metrics. Their higher employability/ further study rates are down to the reputation of these universities as well as the academic nature of the degrees they offer. However they are clearly not struggling for income when compared to other institutions who may score “Bronze” and will be hindered from ever catching up. There is also no mention in the HE Bill for safeguards around failing institutions. The combination of these factors will lead to an education system more elitist than ever before; in the extremes the richer universities will resultantly be getting richer and the poorer ones being left to “die off”.

 

I suggest that this government doesn’t understand higher education: it even has its Minister for Universities sat under “The Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy” as well as the Department for Education. Let us send a clear message that we will not continue to be walked over in the case of tuition fees.  This is the last chance students will have to have their voices heard on this matter and what a simple way to do it: by simply not filling out a survey, students across the country can disrupt the entire plans of this government. Boycotting the NSS will disrupt half of the TEF metrics. Not only for one year but, since the plan is to use a three-year average, for the next three years. Join me, in voting “Yes, the Guild should begin a campaign for students to boycott the National Student Survey” and have your voice heard.

 

For further information and where to vote, please see the Guild website.

The Bill itself can be found here.