25 Students’ Unions have boycotted the NSS – here’s everything you need to know

What was once a useful tool now has an underlying threat

The National Student Survey – initially a useful resource in evaluating the strengths and weaknesses of universities across the country – has now become synonymous with the Teaching Excellence Framework, or “TEF”.

The Teaching Excellence Framework was part of the Conservative’s 2015 manifesto with the intent of rewarding higher education institutes that are of a ‘better’ quality – essentially benefiting universities at the top of the league table and those with a higher student satisfaction score.

How does this directly affect students?

The University of Gloucestershire explains: “To gain a [TEF] rating, the institution needs to fulfil particular criteria on their submission, ranging from such things as graduate employment to NSS scores.” Based on these scores, institutions are awarded a bronze, silver or gold rating – universities awarded with bronze are entitled to raise their tuition fees by £125 a year, and universities with silver or gold can do so by up to £250 in line with the 2017-2018 academic year.

As the National Student Survey collects nationwide data from final year students, it does provide a chance for students to constructively reflect their time at university and help give higher education establishments a chance to improve future student experiences. Despite the links with TEF and inflation of tuition fees, many students still take the survey to provide honest feedback.

As of March 2017, the House of Lords blocked the Conservative proposal of increasing tuition fees according to league table ranking and data gathered from the National Student Survey. However, because the survey and TEF is likely to be re-examined by the Conservatives, a Sabbatical Officer from the University of Warwick released a statement urging students to continue boycotting the survey. They said: “It is now clearer than ever that SUs and the NUS taking a stance on national policy can, and does, make a difference.”

They added: “Since the amendments will likely be subject to further scrutiny in the Commons, we urge final-year students to continue boycotting the National Student Survey (NSS) and withholding their data from Ipsos Mori to send a clear message that students will not be held to ransom.”

Where do universities stand on it?

25 universities and higher education embellishments that have spoken in favour of boycotting the survey include Oxford University Students’ Union, University of Sussex Students’ Union, Reading University Students’ Union, Bristol, Students’ Union Arts London, Cambridge University Students’ Union, Liverpool Hope SU, Sheffield SU, LSESU, University College London Union and University of Manchester SU.

In terms of campaigning against completing the survey, Sussex University’s Students’ Union even held an event called “Unfairground” that illustrated the drawbacks of the ranking universities with the bronze, silver and gold system. Despite adamant campaigning from the SU including NSS themed music videos, Manchester reopened the survey despite only 49.6 percent of students completing it – making it void. King’s College London Students’ Union successfully boycotted the survey after months of intensive campaigning.

Sussex’s ‘unfairground’

The UCL boycott saw a massive drop in participants after months of protesting – 2016’s survey saw a response rate of 79 per cent, whereas 2017 only had a 49 per cent response rate.

November 19th saw  an estimated fifteen thousand students, teachers, and university staff from across the UK protest against the recent Higher Education Bill through central London in the most recent National Demo.

With high pressure for universities and higher education establishments to gain good levels of student satisfaction and to increase their position on the league tables, throughout the country there was evidence of attempts to bribe students to complete the survey. Students at the University of Sussex were bribed with vouchers for food and printing, whilst Bournemouth University students were offered the chance to win “a made-to-measure work outfit, an iPad Pro and be entered into a draw to win £200”.

Newcastle students received immense pressure to complete the survey, with one student stating: “Not sure what the stance of the Union was as a whole but my course was really pressured into doing it. We were bombarded with emails, it was mentioned at the start of every lecture or seminar.

“They told us that if over 70 per cent of students filled in the survey they would give us an end of degree party with free wine. They just said it was really important for the course’s rating in university guides and also for them to get feedback on the teaching.”

What is the future of the NSS?

Although the recent blocking of linking TEF with rise in tuition fees from the House of Lords has subsided the threat of extreme fee rises for the time being, only time will tell if it stays that way. For the time being, completing the survey will only give the current government concrete data to inflate tuition fees.

Whilst the survey itself may at present be directly linked with the Teaching Excellence Framework – providing the underlying threat in variable rises in tuition fees – it once stood as a vital feedback tool for students to provide genuine feedback about their university course.

After £9000+ fees a year and living expenses, university is not a cheap experience – students should rightfully be able to reflect their honest experiences to help improve the quality of future education without the fear of further crippling debt.