This week, I spoke for the motion to end the boycott of the National Student Survey, or NSS. Here’s why I believe that student council was completely right to vote for the motion.
The argument for boycott is as so: the data will be used in the OfS new vehicle, the TEF (Teaching Excellence Framework). This TEF will be used as a justification for cranking up tuition fees and thus if we fill it out, we’re being actively complicit in the marketisation of Higher Education. Let’s look at this. To begin, the idea that it’s the TEF that is cranking up tuition fees. I agree that wholesale fee increases would be generally bad if they were to be significant, but right now it’s not the TEF that’s raising fees. It’s inflation. There’s a reason that Freddos keep going up in price, and that’s because 10p now is not what 10p was five years ago. Likewise, £9,000 gets you significantly less bang for your buck than it did eight years ago, when the Tories came into power. In other words, if we want to keep our universities well-funded, then either more public money is going to have to be poured into them, or fees will have to rise in step with inflation. Where I agree with the boycott movement is that both they and I believe that the former is far preferable to the latter. The fundamental fallacy of the boycott argument is that they believe that the former is likely to happen. I don’t see years of Tory policy being reversed simply because a few students wouldn’t fill in a form. If tuition fees don’t rise in line with inflation, institutions will have to start a programme of cutbacks, layoffs, and increased casualization, which will disproportionately affect early career researchers and mean that students begin to see a drop off in teaching quality. Yes, the way that we fund our HE needs looking at, but under the status quo we have to do what we can to pragmatically ensure that student experience is the priority.
The NSS has a varying level of importance. Simply put, I believe that not filling it in is not important enough to break the TEF, but it is important enough to make it worse. Sure, I have been thrilled with my experience of QMUL, but that doesn’t mean that everyone has been. The chance to have student voices heard is important, and NSS scores have frequently led to wholesale changes in other departments and other institutions. There is no clear benefit to the students of QMUL from boycotting the NSS. The data from the NSS, I believe, would be useful to QMUL departments. From the perspective of my role as Course Rep for English, the SED, in my experience, seems to genuinely care about student’s opinions. A boycott will prevent them from having useful data, and will not stop the TEF from being implemented. The boycott did not roll back the TEF last year. We see no evidence to suggest it will this year. All that boycotting the NSS is actually going to do is prevent the university from having more data.
Former head of the English department (now Dean of Postgraduate Research and the Exeter Doctoral College) at Exeter has called the NSS as a great force for student-led change – ‘Over many years of studying and responding to NSS results, I’ve been involved in reviews of a couple of programmes getting really appalling satisfaction rates. (Don’t worry: not recently and not my own.) And I’ve seen what a very powerful tool for reform those results can be. I’ve seen a DVC banging a desk and saying the results are shameful. And I can assure you that we fixed those programmes. Without the NSS, can I be sure those changes would have happened?’
The idea that, as the NUS has stated, the NSS ‘has nothing to do with teaching quality’, is risible at best, and silences students at its worst. TEF leaders have already stated that they ‘will not be overweighting the NSS’ – showing that last year’s boycott did not work. Just about all the TEF data is already wobbly one way or another; this is a low-expectation environment. Add this to the fact that most students don’t necessarily engage with the SU (not for lack of trying – this isn’t a critique of QMSU, which absolutely does try to engage with students and vice versa) and what we will have is less valuable data, because some people will fill out the NSS, but the most politically engaged students will withhold their opinions. To return to Andrew McRae’s comments: ‘But probably the only people who will notice the difference will be those of us at department level who really, deeply care about the NSS because we profoundly value our students’ opinions. A boycott will hurt us, but the TEF will roll on regardless.’
This year, maintaining a boycott seems to be purely ideological – to ‘resist the marketisation of HE’. This is the reason, I believe, that so many students have lost faith in student organisations such as the NUS. This is a policy decision that deprives institutions of data, which leads to a worse student experience, in favour of pursuing an ideological goal that almost certainly will not be achieved. We are supposed to be a student-led organisation. I could not find a way to equate this with encouraging students to boycott a survey that can lead to wholesale change. That’s why I voted the way that I did.