We are facing a truly pivotal moment in higher education. This government is set to usher in the full marketisation of the sector, with a wave of reforms which represent the most drastic shake-up in decades. Under the new proposals, market-oriented metrics will be used to raise tuition fees even further beyond the current £9000 cap, students will be pitted against academic staff who will have to endure even greater pressures, and the establishment of for-profit providers – which will run in direct competition with public institutions – will be actively encouraged by the government.
Faced with multifaceted and somewhat unprecedented attacks to higher education, it is clear that today’s student movement must seek to deploy a diversity of different tactics and strategies to challenge the agenda of this government. We must be protesting out on the streets, we must be having the debates in boardrooms, but we must also look to new and innovative ways in which we can disrupt these reforms. That is why the national NSS (National Student Survey) boycott campaign was conceptualised.
For years and years, student activists would bring policy to national NUS (National Union of Students) conferences and argue that there should be coordinated action against the NSS, on the basis that it produces unreliable benchmarks, feeds into the concept of students as consumers, and is shown to reproduce institutional racism and sexism. Every single year, these proposals were unsuccessful. This is not because these arguments are invalid; in fact it is widely acknowledged that there are serious flaws with the NSS. But these proposals never formed part of a coherent strategy for fighting higher education reforms, and this year that changed.
The NSS is set to form an integral aspect of the government’s Teaching Excellence Framework (TEF) – a core part of the HE reforms. The TEF is a proposal for how teaching quality will be measured in universities and, clearly, striving for higher levels of teaching quality is not a bad thing. However, how well institutions score in the TEF will be assessed by crude metrics including student satisfaction (in the form of the NSS), graduate employment data (in the form of the DLHE), as well as retention rates. These metrics were never designed to measure teaching quality, and rather than providing useful insight into standards of teaching in higher education, they drive an agenda of marketisation and paint a totally inaccurate picture of the sector.
What’s more, these TEF results will be used to allow high-scoring universities to raise their tuition fees even further beyond the current £9000 cap. This will create a system of differentiated fee levels which will essentially transform the HE sector into a marketplace.
Hence we are faced with a situation where, in order to drive forward the further marketisation of higher education, the government is in part relying on student cooperation through the completion of the NSS – and this gives students a weapon. If, collectively and on a national scale, we can invalidate the data from the already-flawed NSS, we have a chance of disrupting the hugely damaging TEF as a whole and thus challenging the marketisation of education.
So, back in April 2016, some activists from the National Campaign Against Fees and Cuts (NCAFC) submitted a motion outlining this proposal to NUS national conference. After much fierce debate and discussion both inside and outside the conference hall, a vote was taken and the motion passed. This represented some of the most radical strategic policy that has been passed through NUS in many years, and signified a desire and willingness from the student movement to engage with innovative campaigning tactics.
Since then, the campaign has been growing nationally amongst both student and staff communities. Twenty different students’ unions are now democratically mandated to campaign around the NSS boycott, with more expected to follow, whilst the University and College Union (UCU) national congress passed a motion in support of the tactic in June. The message from students and staff nationally is loud and clear: we reject this government’s vision for higher education and will continue to fight, in various different forms, for our vision of an education system which is free, democratic and accessible to all. The NSS boycott is just one part of that struggle.