The government’s strangely-titled proposal for Higher Education reform, “Success as a Knowledge Economy”, has been widely condemned by students and staff.
It lays out plans for a system in which universities can raise their fees, the government can ignore failing institutions, and degrees seen as less employable can be squeezed out. Private companies like Google or Facebook would even be able to open universities with very little regulation.
The University and College Union (UCU), who represent the UK’s Further and Higher Education staff, have expressed grave concerns about the proposal, including its focus on deregulation, on competition rather than collaboration between universities, and a lack of sufficient efforts to widen participation.
The National Union of Students (NUS) has decried the “dangerous” reforms, particularly for the proposed Office for Students, a public body that would have no reserved places for student representatives, despite having powers that could hugely impact students’ lives. The NUS also condemned the government’s continuing attempts to turn students into consumers.
In their responses to the proposals, the UCU and NUS both singled out the Teaching Excellence Framework, or TEF. The TEF will rate an institution’s teaching quality based on “a combination of core metrics and short institutional submissions”, including student record data, student satisfaction indicators, and results from the Destination of Leavers from Higher Education Survey. The UCU has called this “a flawed system of metrics which are poor proxies for quality”.
Scoring highly in the TEF will allow universities to raise their fees – Bath is already advertising fees at £9,250 from 2017/18. This is a “completely flawed” system that will undermine attempts to objectively measure teaching quality, according to the NUS. The UCU warns that variable fees will lead to a tiered system of institutions, with funding withheld from universities that need it the most.
The proposed reforms will create a culture in which staff strive to meet arbitrary targets rather than focusing on teaching. They will place the cost of studying at university even higher than the already outrageous £9,000 a year. They will further entrench the notion that education is not a public good, but a system solely for funnelling students into high-paying graduate jobs.
The government are set on implementing these reforms despite universal opposition from those that it would affect the most – students and staff, who are united in agreement that these reforms will be dangerous and irresponsible.
Enter the National Student Survey (NSS). The NSS is completed by all final year undergraduates, and the first 12 questions are to become part of the TEF. In other words, student feedback, which should be used to improve the university experience for other students, will become a mechanism to raise tuition fees.
To challenge the government’s reforms, the NUS has decided to disrupt the NSS. A possible course of action is a sabotage – students would be encouraged to answer the questions in a certain way, rendering the results unusable. However, it’s possible that the company conducting the NSS could filter out results that have been sabotaged.
A complete boycott would have a much stronger impact. Universities with NSS response rates below 50% are unable to use the data for benchmarking – if enough people boycotted the NSS, a core part of the TEF would be invalidated, and attempts to raise tuition fees would be hindered.
This could be the easiest opportunity for direct action that students have ever been presented with.
If the government refuses to listen to us, mobilise your apathy, and don’t respond to the NSS.
The university will undoubtedly attempt to encourage students to complete it – probably with pizza, or iPads on the Parade. Simply refuse to fill in the NSS, though, and you could be part of a huge movement to show that we deserve to have our concerns listened to.
A successful boycott would show that the quality of a university’s teaching should not be judged based on the results of a survey that can be so easily manipulated, neither should the position of a university on league tables, and thus the apparent value of its degrees. To link the fees that a university can charge to the results of the National Student Survey is absurd.
There are other major problems with the NSS besides its involvement in the government’s reforms. In a 2016 study, researchers at the University of Reading found that lower scores were given to courses taught by black or minority ethnic academics. Other studies have shown that male lecturers consistently receive higher scores than female lecturers, despite no evidence that they are better teachers. A systematically racist and sexist metric has no place in wide-reaching and dangerous reforms to higher education.
In early October, the NUS announced that it would organise a nationwide boycott of the National Student Survey. At the time of writing, over 2,300 students at the University of Sheffield have signed an open letter demanding that they opt out of the Teaching Excellence Framework. Our very own SU Officers have signed a similar letter, urging Vice Chancellors to add their voices to the debate.
An enormous student movement is growing in opposition to the government’s reforms, and it’s absolutely vital that Bath joins. We must take action against the government’s attempts to further ‘marketise’ universities and reduce students to consumers.
It’s as simple as not doing the National Student Survey.